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."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: .NET Developer / Web Developer

£35-45K (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a .NET Developer / Web ...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Manager - Plasma Processing

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Commercial Manager is required to join a lea...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Property Manager

£18000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for your first ...

Recruitment Genius: .NET Web / Software Developer - ASP.NET

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Small and agile digital marketi...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders