Leading article: A victory for fair comment

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The Independent Online

The Court of Appeal has acted with admirable common sense in overturning a High Court libel verdict which would have allowed commercial interest to stifle scientific debate. The British Chiropractic Association had sued the science writer, Simon Singh, over an article he had written which suggested there was insufficient evidence that the manipulation of the spine, joints and soft tissue could be effectively used to treat children with conditions such as colic, ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying. The High Court had ruled that Dr Singh could not rely on the defence of "fair comment" but had, in effect, to prove a medical negative.

The judge who gave the original ruling, Mr Justice Eady, has made a number of rulings which suppress freedom of speech. He was the judge who found in favour of Max Mosley in his privacy battle with the News of the World. The implications of his ruling in the Singh case would have made it difficult for any scientist or science journalist to question claims made by companies or organisations without opening themselves up to a difficult libel action which would involve calling large amounts of scientific evidence at great cost.

What the Appeal Court has said is that scientific controversies should be settled by scientific debate rather than litigation. This is important in a free society. The law of libel is there to protect reputations not to inhibit discussions of matters of public interest. Wealthy organisations should not be able to use it to silence their critics. In recent times the law of libel has tilted too far against free speech, as the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, said recently. The Appeal Court clearly agrees. The judges were scathing of the chiropractors' speedy recourse to libel law rather than taking up the offer of a right to reply to Dr Singh's original newspaper article.

Their decision now tells other authors that they need be a little less chary of challenging big vested interests in pursuit of scientific truth. But more is needed. It should not have taken Dr Singh two years and £200,000 in legal costs to defend the case. The verdict should be a catalyst for wider reform of English libel laws.

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