Mackay aims to end libel trials 'farce'

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A radical package of measures to cut dramatically the number of jury trials for libel and limit damages is to be included in next month's Queen's Speech.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor, is ready to press ahead with a Bill after a consultation exercise on the changes that ends tomorrow, a Whitehall source said.

The Bill, which is not expected to be named in the speech but will be covered by a reference to law reform measures, will propose a new weeding- out process under which all claims will come before a judge at an early stage.

While the measure will not rule out a full-blown jury trial, the judge will decide whether he or she can decide the case under a quick, summary procedure or whether it should be listed for a trial with or without a jury. Under the summary process, the judge would award damages up to a fixed ceiling, expected to be about pounds 10,000.

There will also be a new defence, as recommended by a working group chaired by Lord Justice Neill, which will avoid the need for a trial if the defendant is prepared to offer amends and pay damages assessed by the judge.

The Lord Chancellor believes the measures, which will also apply to slander, will lead to many claims being resolved without juries. There are also plans to enable more straightforward and modest claims to be heard in county courts rather than the High Court.

The changes are an attempt to meet widespread criticism that the libel laws have become a farce played out by the rich and famous against the media, with some damages awards far outstripping the comparatively modest awards for serious personal injuries. The damages record was set in 1989 when a jury awarded pounds 1.5m against Count Nikolai Tolstoy for writing a defamatory pamphlet about the war record of Lord Aldington, the former chairman of Sun Alliance.

The Bill follows amended rules of court, brought in a year ago, requiring libel claimants to set out the particulars of their case in more detail and a procedure enabling either party to get a "ruling as to meaning" in advance of trial, so cutting down lengthy and expensive arguments in court.

The package is designed to discourage both the "crock of gold" philosophy that encourages some claimants to press on with cases in the hope of securing massive damages, and delaying tactics by the media - and to cut down appeals against the size of jury awards. Lord Mackay, a strong exponent of the view that legal claims should be resolved in the simplest and cheapest way possible, is said to be determined to force plaintiffs to think more carefully about whether to fight a case. The EastEnders star Gillian Taylforth and her fiance Geoffrey Knights were left with an estimated pounds 500,000 costs bill after losing their "sex in a car" libel against the Sun last year.