Britain unveils sweeping changes to libel laws

British government on Tuesday unveiled sweeping changes to the libel laws aimed at protecting freedom of speech and bringing an end to so-called "libel tourism" from abroad.

Updated: Mar 16, 2011, 00:41 AM IST

London: British government on Tuesday unveiled
sweeping changes to the libel laws aimed at protecting freedom
of speech and bringing an end to so-called "libel tourism"
from abroad.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke published a draft bill
that includes a new "public interest" defence which can be
used by defendants in defamation cases and a requirement that
claimants can demonstrate substantial harm before they can
sue.

The bill will also signal an end to the use of juries
in libel trials apart from in exceptional circumstances, and
aims to end libel tourism by making it tougher to bring
overseas claims which have little connection to the UK in the
English courts.

Unveiling the draft bill, Clarke said the bill would
"ensure that anyone who makes a statement of fact or expresses
an honest opinion can do so with confidence".

"The right to speak freely and debate issues without
fear of censure is a vital cornerstone of a democratic
society," he said.

"In recent years, though, the increased threat of
costly libel actions has begun to have a chilling effect on
scientific and academic debate and investigative journalism,"
he added.

The bill includes a new statutory defence of truth
which will replace the current common law defence of
justification.

It also includes a statutory defence of honest opinion
replacing the current common law defence of fair and honest
comment.

In a bid to stamp out libel tourism, a court will not
accept jurisdiction unless satisfied that England and Wales is
"clearly" the most appropriate place to bring the action
against someone who does not live in the UK or an EU member
state.

The bill will also remove the presumption in favour of
jury trial as part of a series of measures to cut costs and
speed up court cases.

The government has also begun a consultation on issues
not covered by the draft bill, including responsibility for
publication on the internet.

It will ask whether the law should be changed to give
greater protection to secondary publishers such as internet
service providers and discussion forms.

PTI