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Editorial: Proposed changes to libel law would stifle the press

One-way costs are as disproportionate as they are fraught with unintended consequences

Taken in isolation, the notion of changing the law to ensure that victims of libel – whatever their means – can take on powerful (and wealthy) media groups might appear to be a good one. After all, legal protection from defamation and the invasion of privacy ought not be restricted to the well-heeled.

Such is the worthy goal of the Ministry of Justice’s move to introduce a “one-way” costs regime under which a cash-strapped claimant would not be forced to pay the other side’s legal bills, even if their case was lost. In practice, however, the outcome would be iniquitous.

By removing the restraint imposed by the danger of losing, the plan opens the door to any number of opportunistic and vexatious claims. Nor is this merely a question of time and money wasted. Far more alarming are the implications for the freedom of the press. An editor who knows that their organisation will have to pick up any claimants’ tabs may think twice before publishing controversial stories, however legally defendable they might be.

There is no question that libel cases cost too much. Equally, there is no question that libel, defamation and invasion of privacy cause real suffering. But one-way costs are as disproportionate as they are fraught with unintended consequences.

That the Government’s plan follows the Leveson Inquiry, and has the backing of high-profile victims such as the family of Milly Dowler, is not sufficient argument in its favour. Indeed, it is both unjustifiable and unwise to allow the misdeeds of a tiny minority of journalists to crimp the activities of the media as a whole.

A vigorous and unfettered press is as important as ever, and it must be protected. The Ministry of Justice must go back to the drawing board on libel law reform.