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James Gardner: Home > Blog > 2010 > UK Libel Reform

UK Libel Reform

Posted:2010-01-15 13:45
Headline:Alistair Burt's (my MP) response to my request for reform of UK libel laws.

I'm a keen proponent of libel law reform in the UK. Here, if you are accused of libel it is up to you to prove that the claims you made were true rather than the burden being on the other part to prove they were false. It is one of the few cases where you are presumed guilty unless you can prove yourself innocent. The problem is that defending a libel case in Britain is extremely costly compared to the rest of Europe so some large organisations are using the threat of libel to silence scientific critisim of their products or practices. Since individual scientists can't possilby afford the legal costs to defend a claim even if it is ture, they are forced to keep silent and this isn't a healthy state of affairs if the rest of us are concerned that we get good medical care that actually works.

A case in point is that of Simon Singh, a farily well know author. He wrote a perfectly sensible comment piece in the Guardian highlighting certain evidence that chiropractic treatments aren't as effective as some people make out and highlighting some of the risks of chiropractic treatments over other approaches. He was sued personally for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. They didn't sue the Guardian (presumably because they knew the Guardian was more likely to fight the case). You can read a copy of the article here with references to the evidence interspersed and decide for yourself whether you think it goes beyond the realm of open scientific opinion to the point where Simon Singh should have to pay damages. To save you time it doesn't, but the point is that he shouldn't have to defend an extremely costly libel case for highlighting certain evidence in a comment piece in a national newspaper when the information is in the public good.

Since libel laws are being used to supress freedom of speech and scientific debate, Evan Harris MP propoed Early Day Motion 423 copied below to debate the issues in Parliament and so far it has been signed by 159 MPs:


Harris, Evan

That this House notes that human rights activists, scientists, writers and journalists are prevented from publishing, and the public prevented from reading, matters of strong public interest due to the chilling effect of English libel law; further notes that libel actions in England and Wales cost 100 times more than the European average; further notes that the costs of defending a libel case are usually prohibitive and that even successful defendants do not recover their full costs; further notes the report of the United Nations Committee on Human Rights which criticises English libel law for its stifling of free expression globally due to libel tourism whereby foreign complainants bring cases against foreign writers for alleged libel in overseas publications; believes that public interest is endangered by powerful vested interests and corporations being able to intimidate writers into not publishing; recognises the recent report by Index on Censorship and English PEN, Free speech is not for sale andfurther notes the campaign for scientific freedom by Sense About Science; welcomes the formation of the Libel Reform Coalition to campaign for law reform; and calls for a re-casting of the libel laws such that, while individual reputation is protected against malicious or reckless smears, lawful free expression is not chilled and there is a fully effective public interest defence for both scholarship and responsible journalism.

I signed the Statement of Support via the libel reform webste (and would encourage you to do the same) and sent an email to my MP, Alistair Burt. Here's his response:

Dear Mr Gardner

Thank you for writing to me about EDM 423 and libel law reform.

I understand your concerns on this issue. It is important that those who contribute so much to research and culture in this country do not feel restricted from publishing intellectually challenging and informative articles. Fear of libel action should not curb debate. Freedom of expression is the hallmark of a free society, and must be strongly protected.

If libel cases do succeed, the costs are often so crippling to defendants that even large newspapers are in difficulty in resisting some claims. It is evident that Britain has become an attractive place for individuals to bring about speculative libel action since lawyers will often bear the brunt of the costs in exchange for the potential awards available to winning litigants.

I do believe, however, that we must be careful when changing libel law itself. People have the right not to be defamed unless necessary; any changes to this law should not risk this principle. I believe that the burden of proof should remain on individuals who make defamatory claims about other people to justify their assertions about others. For this reason, I do not feel that I can sign EDM 423.

You may be aware that the Secretary of State for Justice, the Rt. Hon. Jack Straw MP, has recently announced that the Government is currently drawing up plans to alter libel law. Let me assure you that my colleagues on the Shadow Justice Team will continue to press the Government on this issue, to ensure that any changes to the law adequately protect individuals without placing too great a burden on, for example, scientists, academics and journalists.

Thank you for taking the time to write to me.

Kind regards

Alistair Burt MP

It is a very nice response, I appreciate him asking someone else to send it for him and I don't at all mean to disrespect his opinion but the important bit is this:

I believe that the burden of proof should remain on individuals who make defamatory claims about other people to justify their assertions about others. For this reason, I do not feel that I can sign EDM 423.

This is a cleverly crafted statement to allow Mr Burt to completely miss the point (despite the complete agreement he expresses in his first two paragraphs).

If you look up the word defamatory you'll see it is just another way of saying libellous so what Mr Burt is saying is that he believes that people who make untrue and potentially damaging claims about someone else should have to justify their false claims and pay damages if necessary. Absolutely right. No one would disagree with that. The point is that people who make true claims (damaging or not) shouldn't be forced into silence by the threat of having to justify their assertions in court.

Sigining EDM 423, if you read it above, isn't about preventing people who make defamotory claims (ie false ones) from having to justify their assertions about others, mearly about the effect the cost of libel cases is having on thinking in the UK as well as people's ability to speak the truth. As you can read in EDM 423 the cost of a UK libel case is more than 100 times the European average and so people are choosing to sue in the UK even if they are based mainly abroad or the person being sued is based outside the UK.

This is why I am dissapointed with Mr Burt's response. To make matters worse I see that the same response has been sent from other Tory MPs email accounts. I guess in an age where you can easily set up a website to lobby MPs they can just as easily set up electronic systems to largely ignore your opinions.

Anyway, please consider signing the Statement of Support via the libel reform webste and maybe if enough people do we might all be sent a second email with more encouraging content. Mr Burt might even be pursuaded to support your right to speak the truth in this country.

Update: It seems some MPs have taken a more positive attitute which is encouraging (see the bottom of the linked page).

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James Gardner: Home > Blog > 2010 > UK Libel Reform