Reform of libel laws set to open up the right of free speech

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Indy Politics

Sweeping changes to England’s much-criticised libel laws will be introduced, Nick Clegg will announce today.

The Deputy Prime Minister will pledge to end the country’s image as the libel tourism capital of the world because of repressive defamation laws which allow anyone with a reputation to sue and wealthy companies to muzzle critics.

In a speech on civil liberties, he will say: “Our aim is to turn English libel laws from an international laughing stock to an international blueprint.”

He will trail a draft Defamation Bill to be published this spring that will strengthen the public interest defence under the current law to make it harder for companies to take action against pressure groups, scientists, academics, journalists and individuals. Businesses would have to provide more evidence that their reputations and financial position had been damaged than at present.

The reforms would also prevent defamation actions being brought on “essentially trivial grounds.” The Government will consult interested parties on how to reduce the current very high cost of defamation proceedings, including “no win, no fee” arrangements, to make costs fairer.

Mr Clegg will say: “The test of a free press is its capacity to unearth the truth, exposing charlatans and vested interests along the way. It is simply not right when academics and journalists are effectively bullied into silence by the prospect of costly legal battles with wealthy individuals and big businesses.

“Nor should foreign claimants be able to exploit these laws, bringing cases against foreign defendants here to our courts – even if the connection with England is tenuous. It is a farce – and an international embarrassment - that the American Government has felt it necessary to legislate to protect their citizens from our libel laws.”

Mr Clegg will add: “ This Government wants to restore our international reputation for free speech.We intend to provide a new statutory defence for those speaking out in the public interest. And to clarify the law around the existing defences of fair comment, and justification.”

Pressure groups welcomed the tough stance being proposed by the Deputy Prime Minister. John Kampfner, chief executive of Index on Censorship, said: “Nick Clegg’s speech lays out the foundations of what will be wholesale reform of our archaic libel laws. I’m pleased he has recognised that these laws make the UK an international laughing stock. The detail is impressive, but it’s imperative that Clegg’s strong words are matched by a final bill that removes the chill on free speech from our courts.”

"Nor should foreign claimants be able to exploit these laws, bringing cases against foreign defendants here to our courts – even if the connection with England is tenuous. It is a farce – and an international embarrassment – that the American Government has felt it necessary to legislate to protect their citizens from our libel laws."

He will add: "We intend to provide a new statutory defence for those speaking out in the public interest. And to clarify the law around the existing defences of fair comment, and justification."

Pressure groups welcomed the stance. John Kampfner, the chief executive of Index on Censorship, said: "The detail is impressive, but it's imperative that Clegg's strong words are matched by a final bill that removes the chill on free speech from our courts."

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