UK Libel Law Reform - A First Step

A UK Parliamentary committee has today 24 February 2010 published online its report on press standards, privacy and libel.

The committee's conclusions will give some cheer to those of us who believe that current UK libel laws are bringing British jurisprudence into disrepute.

The report Press standards, privacy and libel is available to
browse online or to download as the second report in two free pdf files.

The Culture Media and Sports Committee's conclusions and recommendations will no doubt be of particular interest to those who are following the Simon Singh case.  I have reproduced here some of the paragraphs which I think will most interest readers:

19.  Much of the recent publicity given to concerns of the medical and science community about the harmful effects of UK libel laws on their ability to comment has followed the court rulings to date in the Simon Singh case and media coverage of the cases of the British cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst and the Danish radiologist Henrik Thomson, who have faced action from overseas commercial interests. (Paragraph 141)
20.  We look forward, clearly, to the outcome of the important Simon Singh case. Even from the limited evidence we have received, we believe that the fears of the medical and science community are well-founded, particularly in the internet age and with the growth of 'libel tourism'. We urge the Government, therefore, to take account of these concerns in a review of the country's libel laws, in particular the issue of fair comment in academic peer-reviewed publications. (Paragraph 142)
23. ... it is our opinion that there is potential for a statutory responsible journalism defence to protect serious, investigative journalism and the important work undertaken by NGOs. We recommend that the Government launches a detailed consultation over potentially putting such a defence, currently available in common law, on a statutory footing. We welcome consultations already launched by the Ministry of Justice in the field of media law. Such a further exercise will provide an opportunity to gain more clarity and show the Government is serious about protecting responsible journalism and investigations by the media, authors and NGOs in the public interest. (Paragraph 163)
25.  Whatever the constitutional situation, or diplomatic niceties, we believe that it is more than an embarrassment to our system that legislators in the US should feel the need to take retaliatory steps to protect freedom of speech from what they view as unreasonable attack by judgments in UK courts. The Bills presented in Congress, allowing for triple damages, were reminiscent of the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act, which was originally aimed at tackling organised crime. As such, they clearly demonstrated the depth of hostility to how UK courts are treating 'libel tourism'. It is very regrettable, therefore, that the Government has not sought to discuss the situation with their US counterparts in Washington, or influential states such as New York and California. We urge it to do so as soon as possible. (Paragraph 205)
33.  The offence of criminal libel is untenable in a modern, democratic society. We therefore welcome the Government's decision, 27 years after it was advocated by the Law Commission, to repeal the law of criminal libel. We hope this will encourage other legislatures, including the Scottish Parliament, to demonstrate their own commitment to freedom of expression by doing the same. (Paragraph 235)
43.  Lawyers must also play their part. Just as the press must be accountable for what it writes, lawyers must be accountable for the way in which cases are run, and that includes costs. The current costs system, especially the operation of CFAs, offers little incentive for either lawyers or their clients to control costs, rather the contrary. It also leads to claims being settled where they lack merit. We hope that the combined effect of our recommendations, the Ministry of Justice consultations and the conclusions of Lord Justice Jackson, will provide the impetus for a fairer and more balanced approach to costs in publication proceedings. (Paragraph 309)

[Paragraph 43 is in bold text in the original.]

This report follows closely on the heels of a recent cross-party group report that the
NHS Should Cease Funding Homeopathic Medicine, and was published online the day after the judge
 in the Simon Singh case made some observations seemingly favorable to Simon Singh's case.

I sincerely hope that the judges in the appeal will consider the opinions expressed in the reports when forming their decision on the pre-trial hearing arguments.

Whilst judgements following full hearings often take up to three months, I feel that the pre-hearing findings of the judges will be published in about two weeks, given the international community's deep interest in the Simon Singh case.

fiat justitia ruat caelum

Related posts:
Judge Judge Judges Judgement
Simon Singh Wins - US Law To The Rescue!