Government promises reform of libel laws

The Government today promised reform of the libel laws to provide a "fair balance" between freedom of expression and protection of reputation.

Justice Minister Lord McNally said there would be a wide-ranging consultation exercise over the summer with publication of a draft Bill early in the new year.

He told peers this was not a "vague promise" but a "firm commitment to act on this matter".

The move would give ministers a "strong case for making time in the 2011-12 legislative programme for a substantive Bill".

Lord McNally said: "We recognise the concerns raised in recent months about the detrimental effects that the current law may be having on freedom of expression - particularly in relation to academic and scientific debate, the work of non-governmental organisations and investigative journalism.

"In reviewing the law we want to focus on ensuring that freedom of speech and academic debate are protected and a fair balance is struck between freedom of expression and the protection of reputation

"We want to ensure that the right balance is achieved so people who have been defamed are able to take action to protect their reputation but so that freedom of speech is not unjustifiably impeded."

His announcement in second reading debate on the Defamation Bill was swiftly welcomed by campaigners for reform of the libel laws.

John Kampfner, the chief executive of Index on Censorship, said: "Today the Government listened to the 52,000 people who backed the English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science campaign to redesign our libel laws and have committed, for the first time in a century, to wholesale reform.

"We are delighted, but obviously we'll need to see how bold the Government will be - they must stop libel tourism, cut the obscene legal costs involved and give cast-iron protections to free speech."