Clegg calls for end to 'stifling' libel laws

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Britain's "stifling" libel laws are "making a mockery" of the justice system and risk snuffing out legitimate scientific debate, Nick Clegg warns.

In a speech at the Royal Society, the Liberal Democrat leader will blame "draconian and unbalanced" laws for the growth of libel tourism that has seen London become the libel capital of the world. His party is drawing up a package of reforms which would shift the burden of proof on to the plaintiff, decrease the size of damages awarded and introduce rules blocking foreigners from using English courts to fight their libel cases.

Existing rules allow foreign plaintiffs to use English courts to sue, even if the publications in question sold very few copies in Britain.

"Libel tourism is making a mockery of British justice," Mr Clegg will say. In one case, a US academic was successfully sued for £130,000 by a Saudi businessman in an English court, even though the defamatory book sold just 23 copies in Britain over the internet.

"I am deeply concerned about the stifling effect English libel laws are having on scientific debate," Mr Clegg will say. "Scientists must be allowed to question claims fearlessly – especially those that relate to medical care, environmental damage and public safety – if we are to protect ourselves against poor research, phoney treatments and vested corporate interests."

He will also use the speech to criticise "super injunctions" sought and employed by companies to comprehensively gag the media from discussing sensitive issues. MPs and transparency groups were outraged last October when an injunction issued on behalf of the oil-trading company Trafigura not only blocked any reporting of the reasons for the injunction, but also sought to block any coverage of parliamentary proceedings involved in the case. "Our libel law and practice have turned a country once famed for its traditions of freedom and liberty into a legal farce where people and corporations with money can impose silence on others at will," Mr Clegg will say. "I believe in raucous freedom of speech, not gagging orders in our courts."

Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, has already ordered a review of the libel laws, due to be completed by mid-March. The review panel, made up of academics, lawyers and newspaper editors, will look at whether a specialist tribunal should be set up to resolve defamation cases out of court.

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