Straw says reform of libel laws is needed

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The Government is preparing proposals for reforming the UK's "unbalanced" libel laws, Jack Straw has confirmed. The Justice Secretary said the current system was attracting "libel tourists" and restricting "fair comment".

His comments came amid growing concern that the rise of "no win no fee" cases in British courts is threatening freedom of speech.

In some cases, newspapers who lose libel actions are being left with bills for their opponent's legal costs that are many times higher than the damages awarded.

Mr Straw told the Sunday Times that radical change was needed: "It is very important that citizens are able to take action for defamation if they are seriously defamed. But no-win, no-fee arrangements have got out of hand. The system has become unbalanced."

He added: "The very high levels of remuneration for defamation lawyers in Britain seem to be incentivising libel tourism."

Mr Straw said media outlets and individuals had to be given clearer rights to freedom of expression, as was the situation in other countries such as the US.

"A free press can't operate or be effective unless it can offer readers comment as well as news," he insisted. "What concerns me is that the current arrangements are being used by big corporations to restrict fair comment, not always by journalists but also by academics."

Freedom of speech campaigners have suggested that libel payouts could be capped at £10,000, and apologies made the main remedy. There have also been calls for the burden of proof to be shifted, so claimants have to demonstrate damage - rather than the defendant being guilty until proven innocent.

Libel law hit the headlines last month amid claims that a so-called 'super-injunction' was being used to prevent the reporting of parliamentary questions about a report into the alleged dumping of toxic waste.

It was part of a five-week legal battle between The Guardian and Carter-Ruck, the lawyers acting for oil traders Trafigura.

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