Fast-track defamation laws delayed after lawyers complain they 'just wouldn't work'

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The Independent Online

Government plans to introduce judge-only libel trials have been postponed after the Lord Chancellor was warned that the new rules would create chaos.

Government plans to introduce judge-only libel trials have been postponed after the Lord Chancellor was warned that the new rules would create chaos.

Radical changes in the law aimed at helping people with limited funds, who wouldn't normally be able to afford to bring a claim for libel, were due to come into force in January.

These would have created a "fast track" defamation procedure where damages are limited to £10,000. Cases would be heard by a judge sitting on his own without a jury, reducing the cost of litigation.

But during consultation with the legal profession it became clear there were serious shortcomings in the rules. Lawyers claimed that they had been poorly drafted and, in some cases, even used the wrong legal terminology. "They just wouldn't work," one solicitor said.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, told lawyers in September that they must be ready for the new rules on 1 January. But his department confirmed yesterday that they would not now be implemented until the spring.

Lawyers specialising in defamation (which includes libel and slander) also have grave doubts about the popularity of the fast-track system. "Who wants to limit oneself to £10,000 when with a jury there's always a chance of winning much more?" asked one.

David Lock, parliamentary secretary at the Lord Chancellor's Department, also announced a separate consultation on libel laws, which would include the issue of fighting funds. Although he was at pains not to refer to the Hamilton-Fayed libel case, which ended this week, Mr Lock said he was concerned "in general, that people can help to fund a substantial libel action and then walk away if it fails, leaving costs unpaid".

Lord Harris of High Cross, who administered the fighting fund in the Hamilton action, said it had reached £500,000 but acknowledged that this would not meet the estimated £2m cost of the trial.

The judge in the case, Mr Justice Morland, ruled that the names of those who contrib-uted more than £5,000 to Mr Hamilton's fund should be disclosed to Mohamed Al Fayed's lawyers.

Other issues of libel law to be looked at by the Government include the use of the Internet by people without funds to libel other people. Ministers are also concerned that the rich can use the threat of libel proceedings to suppress legitimate public comment.

"It is said that the late Robert Maxwell used to issue writs as a way of preventing anyone else from commenting on the allegations while having little intention of proceeding with the action," added Mr Lock.