Plans to reform 'archaic' libel laws published

A senior Liberal Democrat peer will today publish plans for reforming "archaic" libel laws in England and Wales.

A Defamation Bill drawn up by Lord Lester of Herne Hill will propose toughening up defences against being sued, and measures to encourage out-of-court settlements.

The private member's bill comes after the coalition government pledged a review of the libel laws to protect free speech and prevent so-called "libel tourism".

Lord Lester, a prominent QC, said the "vagueness and uncertainty" of the current system had a "chilling effect on freedom of expression".

"The time is over-ripe for Parliament to replace our patched-up archaic law with one that gives stronger protection to freedom of speech," he said.

"No Government or Parliament has conducted a thorough and comprehensive review. My Bill provides the opportunity to do so and to modernise the law in step with the technological revolution.

"It creates a framework of principles rather than a rigid and inflexible code, and it seeks a fair balance between reputation and public information on matters of public interest."

The peer said his Bill would:

:: Introduce a statutory defence of responsible publication on a matter of public interest;

:: Clarify the defences of justification and fair comment, renamed as 'truth' and 'honest opinion';

:: Respond to the problems of the internet age, including multiple publications and the responsibility of Internet Service Providers and hosters;

:: Protect those reporting on proceedings in Parliament and other issues of public concern;

:: Require claimants to show substantial harm, and corporate bodies to show financial loss;

:: Encourage the speedy settlement of disputes without recourse to costly litigation.