Fast-track libel hides 'dangers'

Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay's proposals for fast-tracking smaller defamation claims could win support among newspapers but present hidden dangers to individuals, say lawyers.

The proposed summary procedure would allow judges to dispose quickly of simpler cases for awards of up to £10,000.

Santha Rasaiah, senior lawyer at the Newspaper Society which represents regional papers, warns: “This could be detrimental for individuals and could be counter-productive by clogging up the courts with vexatious and 'gold-digging' claims.”

Individuals could be hurt because they will be encouraged to take on actions and involve lawyers in cases that currently are happily resolved by non-legal means, such as corrections and right of reply, adds Rasaiah.

Plaintiffs losing small cases could still face substantial costs, she warns.

But Arthur Davidson QC, chair of the Fleet Street Lawyers Society, says: “In general, it has merit. Many people want a quick apology and reasonable compensation, and they don't want the trauma of a lengthy libel action.”

Davidson, of 1 Pump Court, says: “This seems to be a way of disposing of relatively non-contentious matters in a speedy, sensible and hopefully economic way.”

Mackay's summary procedure would allow judges to dismiss weak claims under their powers of summary disposal.