Is libel reform now really possible?

There is so much wrong with the law of libel that statutory intervention is required. 

Whilst aspects of libel abuse can be dealt with by decisions of the appellate courts, or by changes to court procedure or by amendments to statutory instruments, the deeper problems are really such that primary legislation is necessary.

For example, there needs to a public interest defence which goes beyond the journalistic and procedural defence of Reynolds to any good faith publication by any person (and not just journalists) on a matter of public interest, such as in respect of health, medicine, and public safety (whether fact or comment). 

There also needs to be a bar on corporations bringing suits for defamation; there is simply no good reason why corporations can sue for this tort when, say, public authorities cannot. 

Both of these reforms need primary legislation.

The prerequisite for such statutory intervention will be engagement by the Ministry of Justice.  For, without the MoJ’s involvement and support, the prospect of any parliamentary time for consideration of a libel reform bill is minimal.   This would even be the case with some heroic backbench MP or peer promoting their own libel reform bill.

This is why yesterday’s announcement by Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, is so significant. 

Canny politician as he is, he could have just made a vague supportive noise; but instead, and to his credit, he has committed resources of the MoJ to publish a report and even to soon prepare a draft bill.

Any published draft bill will of course not be perfect, but it will be something which can be considered and improved upon.

For even if the initial draft provisions do not include an appropriately strong public interest defence or a bar on non-natural persons bringing defamation claims, then these are amendments which can be pressed for during the bill’s passage through the legislative process.

Now the next step will be for the MoJ to secure sufficient parliamentary time in the next session. 

However, this cannot be taken as a given, especially in what is likely to be the busy first session of an incoming government.  Unfortunately, libel reform is also not yet as high on the Conservative Party’s list of priorities as is it is for the Liberal Democrats and, following Jack Straw’s late conversion, the Labour Party. 

So, even with yesterday’s welcome announcement, the libel reform campaign will still be heading towards failure, unless the new government commits sufficient parliamentary time for the MoJ to carry through a libel reform bill.

And, once the incoming government does commits itself to providing such parliamentary time, then libel reform will finally move from being a possibility to a probability.

Allen Green writes the Jack of Kent blog and is a supporter of the Libel Reform campaign