MoJ unveils its plans for overhauling libel laws

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has published its draft Defamation Bill in an effort to bring Britain’s libel laws up to date.

Kenneth Clarke
Kenneth Clarke

Freedom of speech campaigners have lobbied hard for the reform of British libel laws arguing that the current system, where wealthy litigants can sue defendants at little financial risk to themselves.

The former justice secretary Jack Straw had pledged to crack down on libel tourism and today his successor Kenneth Clarke unveiled the much-anticipated bill.

Clarke said: “The Government’s draft Defamation Bill will ensure that anyone who makes a statement of fact or expresses an honest opinion can do so with confidence.

“However, it’s never acceptable to harm someone’s reputation without just cause, so the bill will ensure defamation law continues to balance the needs of both sides and encourage a just outcome in libel cases.”

The bill includes eight key clauses including proposals to force claimants to demonstrate that substantial harm had been done in the libellous material.

New defences that have been created through the courts will become enshrined in law, including a statutory defence on honest opinion, which  the Supreme Court first referred to in December (1 December 2010).

According to the MoJ research did not support the notion that there has been a significant rise in libel tourism, but the Government said it would address the matter to allay concerns raised by non-governmental organisations.

The MoJ proposes to change the law so that a court does not have jurisdiction to hear and determine a claim unless it is satisfied that “of all the places in which the statement complained of has been published, England and Wales is clearly the most appropriate jurisdiction in which to bring an action in respect of the statement”.

Consideration will also be given to the removal of the presumption in favour of trial by jury, despite there not being a libel trial by jury for more than 12 months, and a single publication rule introduced, meaning repeat claims for libel cannot be made every time a publication is accessed on the internet.