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British government reforms of English libel law

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:41 pm on 9 January, 2010.
Categories political liberties, freedom of speech, British politics.
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Last year, the Guardian reported:

Signalling his desire for reforms, Straw insisted that the changes can be introduced “without the need for primary legislation”.

Straw highlighted the plans amid concern at the way huge payouts awarded to claimants are attracting “libel tourists” to Britain, and what the minister described as the “chilling effect” of existing libel laws on democracy.

The government’s decision to look again at the libel system follows threats by overseas publishers to abandon sales in the UK because of the fear of libel.

In an interview in tomorrow’s New Statesman magazine, Straw says the rise of “no-win no-fee” arrangements threatens free speech by making it prohibitively expensive for publishers to defend themselves.

Research by Oxford University has revealed that the cost of a defending a libel action in England and Wales is now 140 times greater than the average in other European countries, according to the New Statesman.

Straw added: “Our libel laws are having a chilling effect. By definition, it’s not hitting the most profitable international media groups, News International or Associated Newspapers and so on, though it’s not good news for them.

“It is hitting the press that is vital to our democracy but whose finances are much more difficult, and that includes magazines, one or two of the nationals, and regional and local newspapers, and it’s really bad for them. That’s why I will be changing the law on defamation costs.”

Whilst reducing the payouts may help, it seems to me that reforming it to place the onus the proving the libel on the prosecution, rather than the defence would be a better way to approach this issue.

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