Thursday, March 17, 2011

U.K. Proposes Libel-Law Overhaul

Wall Street Journal
March 15, 2011

The British government on Tuesday proposed changes in the law of defamation in England and Wales to provide greater protection for speech and publication and to discourage foreign claimants from seeking an easier ride in English courts.

The Department of Justice proposed that a statement must cause substantial harm to be defamatory, and it proposed statutory defenses of responsible publication, truth, and honest opinion.

The department called for further consultation on removing a presumption that libel trials will be decided by juries, enacting a single-publication rule to bar suits over the same material by the same publisher after a one-year limitation period, and on whether the law should give greater protection to secondary publishers such as Internet service providers, discussion forums and booksellers.

To discourage people from choosing to exploit English libel law, the department proposed denying jurisdiction in England and Wales unless it is clearly the most appropriate place to bring an action against someone who isn't domiciled in the U.K. or the European Union.

"The right to speak freely and debate issues without fear of censure is a vital cornerstone of a democratic society," said Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke. "In recent years though, the increased threat of costly libel actions has begun to have a chilling effect on scientific and academic debate, and investigative journalism."