Defamation reform urged

RADICAL reform of the UK's “outdated” libel laws is needed, despite the Lord Chancellor's existing proposals for change, says the Newspaper Society.

The society, which represents the regional press, says the Government still needs to address fundamental issues including burden of proof, the role of the jury, and the award and calculation of damages, which some press lawyers say should be set by judges.

Responding to Lord Mac-kay's draft defamation Bill, which has gone out to consultation, the society welcomed moves to update and extend defences. But it also pressed for a continuing need for “wholesale reform” of the defamation law.

It objected to the courts being given the power to dictate the content, manner and timing of publication of material in any newspaper without its consent in default of an agreed apology or correction.

The new offer of amends defence and summary procedure may have some benefits including removing damages awards from the jury. However, the society fears they could affect the “swift, informal and amicable” settlement of complaints by regional newspapers and could lead to unnecessary litigation.

Despite a good defence, newspapers may still face commercial pressures for settling early rather than risk the cost and uncertainties of jury trial.