Defamation Bill intended to kill off 'libel tourism'

 

Major changes to Britain's antiquated defamation laws will be outlined by ministers today with the publication of a bill to provide greater protection for free speech and an end to "libel tourism".

The draft Defamation Bill will propose a new defence of "honest opinion", which will protect academics from being sued by companies and special-interest groups for damaging their reputations. There is now a defence of "fair comment", but it has to be based on stated and true facts and rarely succeeds.

There will also be new rules to stop celebrities and businessmen from bringing libel cases in Britain unless they can prove that the publication caused them "substantial harm" in the country. Foreign litigants will have to sue in the country where most of the damage to their reputations was done, rather than using the English courts on the basis that the publication was available in Britain.

Last year MPs warned that Britain's international reputation for free speech was being damaged by the "embarrassing" spread of libel tourism. It followed dozens of cases where foreign businessmen and celebrities used the UK courts to sue for defamation even where there was no evidence of substantial publication in this country.

In one case, a Ukrainian businessman sued a Ukrainian newspaper in the UK over an article it published on corrupt land deals in Kiev. The article was written in Ukrainian and the paper had only about 100 British subscribers. But the paper was forced to apologise as part of an undisclosed out-of-court settlement.

In another case, the House of Lords allowed Russians Boris Berezovsky and Georgi Glouchkov to sue the American magazine Forbes over an article about their business activities in Russia, which contained accusations of gangsterism and corruption. Around 780,000 copies of the magazine were sold in the United States, while only around 6,000 copies were accessed in print or via the internet in the UK. Forbes did not prove the allegations were true and settled the case.

Last year President Obama signed into law legislation protecting US writers from foreign libel judgments. The Speech Act makes foreign libel rulings virtually unenforceable in US courts and was drawn up to protect Americans from claimant-friendly jurisdictions such as the UK.

Under the new rules, it will be up to a judge to decide whether "substantial harm" has been caused to reputation in this country. It is expected that if the main damage was done outside this country, UK courts will not accept jurisdiction. The Bill will also include new rules designed to protect academics and others from being sued by companies or individuals for expressing views – even if they are defamatory.

This follows several high profile cases, including that of the science writer Simon Singh, who was taken to court by the British Chiropractors Association for calling their techniques in treating certain ailments "bogus".

In another case, a cardiology consultant was sued for criticising a heart implant device at a medical conference in the US. Ministers are worried that legislation is scaring off academics from publishing critical studies – which are in the public interest – for fear of being sued by large corporations with deep pockets. Under the new rules, it will be much easier for them to defend themselves with enhanced public interest rules. It is hoped the new tests will discourage claimants from suing in the first place.

There will also be proposals to reform libel rules on the internet, so that articles are not repeatedly published and so give rise to a fresh defamation claim every time someone clicks on them.

Lord McNally, the Liberal Democrat Justice Minister, said the changes would be "radical" and would be bad news for "corporate bullies, rich bullies". They could become law as soon as next year, he said. "I think the whole package will be very much what people have been looking for," he added.

Notable cases

Ben Goldacre

As a journalist who specialises in debunking scientific myths and PR babble, Mr Goldacre is used to stirring controversy. In 2007, he was sued by Matthias Rath, a vitamin pill manufacturer, who had taken out full-page advertisements in South African publications denouncing Aids drugs as ineffective, while promoting his own supplements. Mr Goldacre raised concerns about these advertising strategies in a series of articles and Mr Rath sued him for libel. The case was eventually dropped but not before legal costs of more than £500,000 were racked up.

Simon Singh

The popular science writer became a poster child for libel reform when the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) sued him for a piece in The Guardian newspaper that was critical of the trade. Singh lost the first legal round in which the BCA sued over his assertion that some chiropractors "happily promote bogus treatments". But he appealed, and when a pre-trial hearing allowed the appeal to go ahead, the BCA dropped its case against him.

Hardeep Singh

For the past three years, the freelance journalist has been fighting a case brought by an Indian Sikh sect leader. He was sued by Baba Jeet Singh Ji Maharaj for libel after publishing an article which he said falsely accused him of being a cult leader. The action was finally thrown out two weeks ago when Mr Maharaj failed to pay £250,000 in to court as security for costs. Singh now faces an ongoing legal battle in both the British and Indian courts to recover his costs. He is tens of thousands of pounds in debt.

Kyiv Post

Being a Ukrainian language newspaper with only 100 subscribers in Britain was not enough to protect the Kyiv Post from Rinat Akhmetov, who sued it over allegations in an October 2007 article headed "Appalling Kyiv City Council Land Grab". The story concerned land deals and corruption in Kiev and alleged that Akhmetov, one of Ukraine's richest businessmen, had acted unlawfully in various real estate transactions. The paper apologised as part of an undisclosed settlement out of court in February 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Interactive / Mobile Developer

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - Midweight

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Front End Developer

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: Front End Developer - Midweight / Senior

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Day In a Page

Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

Tate Sensorium

New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
10 best sun creams for kids

10 best sun creams for kids

Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

Remember Ashton Agar?

The No 11 that nearly toppled England
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks