Lib Dems bid for free speech reform

THE LIBERAL Democrats have called for a new “offer of amends” defence to be introduced by Parliament as part of a package of proposed free speech reforms.

The defence, allowing the media to admit liability and offer an apology and limited compensation at an early stage during a libel action, means fewer cases would go to court.

If a claimant refused the offer, the defendant would then have a defence during proceedings.

The proposal is included in the party's new consultation document, the Press and Broadcasting Legal Issues Paper. It is one of a number of suggestions to be debated at this week's Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton.

Other issues will include the extension of legal aid to libel cases, shifting the onus of proof in libel cases on to the plaintiff, greater protection of journalists' sources, and enforceable rights of access to Government information.

Libel barrister Richard Rampton QC, who chaired the working group for the paper, says the offer of amends would satisfy many people who make complaints against the media.

“It is not so much the money, but more an early recognition of wrongdoing and a public retraction and apology which people want. The hope would be that in most circumstances the offer would be accepted,” he says.

The offer would cut down on high compensation payments, reduce the number of lawyers used and provide immediate satisfaction to complainants, Rampton adds.

The proposal would also deal with situations where plaintiffs decide to push ahead against advice in an effort to secure a higher payout.