Bill designed to curb soaring libel damages

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Indy Politics
HEATHER MILLS

Home Affairs Correspondent

A comprehensive package of measures designed dramatically to cut the number of libel trials and limit damages was published yesterday.

The Defamation Bill and the Damages Bill have been combined to meet widespread criticism that the libel laws have become a farce, a luxury of the rich and famous - and anger that some damages awards far outstrip sums awarded to accident victims who suffer serious disabling injuries.

The reforms introduced by Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor, include a new weeding-out process under which all claims would come before a judge at an early stage.

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

There is also a new defence - an offer of amends - which would avoid the need for a trial if the defendant agreed to pay damages assessed by the judge.

The Lord Chancellor believes the measures, which will also apply to slander, would lead to many claims being resolved without juries. The package is designed to discourage the so-called "crock of gold" philosophy which encourages some people to press on with cases in the hope of securing massive damages. It is further designed to avoid delaying tactics by the media and to cut down appeals against the size of jury awards.

Concerns about the length, complexity and cost of libel trials have been fuelled in recent years by a number of high- profile cases which resulted in huge payouts to plaintiffs.

In one case, Sonia Sutcliffe, then wife of Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe, was awarded pounds 600,000 against Private Eye magazine - a sum reduced on appeal to pounds 60,000.

A record pounds 1.5m was handed out in November 1989 to Lord Aldington after the historian Count Nikolai Tolstoy described him in a pamphlet as a war criminal. But in a landmark ruling last July, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that the massive damages violated Count Tolstoy's right to freedom of expression.

The longest-running libel case between McDonald's Corporation and two environmental activists who accused the fast-food chain of contributing to the destruction of the rainforests is still going strong after nearly 20 months. And last month the Tory MP David Ashby found himself facing a pounds 500,000 bill for a failed libel action against the Sunday Times.

Lord Mackay, a strong exponent of the view that legal claims should be resolved in the simplest, cheapest way possible, is said to be determined to force parties to think more carefully before fighting a case. The package also includes plans to reduce from three years to one, the time in which proceedings for defamation must begin and introducing a further defence of "innocent dissemination", for those not primarily responsible for publication.

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