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Ken Clarke unveils libel laws shake-up

A radical shake-up of libel laws will increase protection for people who expose issues of public interest, Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke said today.

Costs will be brought down in the long-term, making it less likely that large corporations will be able to bully people into staying silent out of fear of the huge costs of litigation, he said.

But the Government has no plans for a similar shake-up of privacy laws and superinjunctions, meaning the rich and powerful will still be able to prevent aspects of their behaviour from becoming public.

"It's a step in the struggle to get the right balance between freedom of speech and protection of reputation," Mr Clarke said.

Reducing costs will make the libel laws "less daunting for plaintiffs and defendants", making it "more likely they will seek a remedy where they're entitled to it", he said.

They will be "more confident they're able to defend unfounded allegations and claims of defamation against them when people are issuing gagging writs against them, trying to get them to stop repeating allegations by threatening them with the huge costs of litigation."

But controversial issues for libel reform campaigners - including whether to give internet service providers greater protection and whether specific limits should be placed on a firm's ability to bring a defamation action - were left out of the Bill, with the Government launching a consultation instead.

Under the plans outlined in the Government's draft Defamation Bill, the presumption that juries will be used in defamation cases would also be scrapped.

The move would mean the end of jury trials for defamation, "unless there's an exceptional case", Mr Clarke said.

Juries were still one of the best ways to tell which one of two witnesses was telling the truth, he added.

The new defence of truth would replace that of justification and a defence of honest opinion would replace that of fair comment.

The draft Bill puts the law into "plain English", Mr Clarke said.

In a bid to prevent trivial actions, any statement must also have caused "substantial harm" for a libel action to be brought under the new plans.

Courts will also have to decide whether England and Wales is the most appropriate place to bring an action in an effort to crack down on so-called libel tourism.

But Mr Clarke said there were no plans to address concerns about the country's privacy laws and the use of superinjunctions.

"At this stage of the Government we have no plans to start acting on the law of privacy or to start acting on superinjunctions and so on," he said.

"They're not in our programme and we're not in a position to start contemplating doing it.

"But I don't rule out that at some stage the coalition Government may be persuaded to have a look at the two of them. We have no plans or policy on the subject at the moment."

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the reforms would restore a sense of proportion to the law.

"We cannot continue to tolerate a culture in which scientists, journalists and bloggers are afraid to tackle issues of public importance for fear of being sued," he said.

Jonathan Heawood, director of the campaign group English Pen, said: "Our libel laws allow big corporations to silence their critics even though they do not 'suffer' damage in the same way that a libelled individual does.

"Whilst we're delighted that the Government has delivered a wholesale draft bill, for the first time in a generation, it's essential that this opportunity delivers real reform that protects free speech for writers, publishers and the citizen critic."

Civil rights group Liberty also welcomed the reforms, saying they "could help stem frivolous or abusive threats of libel and prevent powerful interests coming to Britain to shut down criticism and debate".

The Law Society said it was vital that "the often competing values of freedom of expression and the right of ordinary people to protect themselves against powerful interests seeking to unfairly besmirch their reputation are both fully considered".

Shadow justice minister Rob Flello said: "The devil will be in the detail of this Bill and how it will bring libel laws up to date and in line with a growing online media."