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New libel law discourages trivial defamation claims

Feb 12, 2014
Libel laws in England and Wales were significantly reformed on 1 January 2014 to provide clearer, better protection for people publicly expressing opinions.

The Defamation Act 2013 reverses the chilling effect on freedom of expression current libel law has allowed, and the prevention of legitimate debate we have seen in the past. For example, some journalists, scientists or academics have faced unfair legal threats for fairly criticising a company, person or product.

For the first time a new serious harm threshold has been set to help people understand when claims should be brought and discourage trivial claims that harm freedom of speech and unnecessarily take up court time.

“The introduction of these new measures will make it harder for wealthy people or companies to bully or silence those who may have fairly criticised them or their products,” said Justice Minister Shailesh Vara.  “As a result of these new laws, anyone expressing views and engaging in public debate can do so in the knowledge that the law offers them stronger protection against unjust and unfair threats of legal action. These laws coming into force represent the end of a long and hard-fought battle to ensure a fair balance is struck between the right to freedom of expression and people’s ability to protect their reputation.”

The Defamation Act contains a series of measures that include:

  • Protection for those who are publishing material on a matter of public interest where they reasonably believe that publication is in the public interest;
  • Introducing a new process which should help a person who feels an online statement is defamatory to resolve the dispute directly with the person who has posted the statement. This offers better protection for the operators of websites hosting user-generated content, provided they follow the new process. New regulations have been introduced to ensure that this process operates effectively;
  • A single publication rule to prevent repeated claims against a publisher about the same material;
  • Action to address libel tourism by tightening the test for claims involving those with little connection to England and Wales being brought before our courts;
  • Greater protection for secondary publishers including booksellers and newsagents by removing the possibility of an action for defamation being brought against them if it is reasonably practicable for an action to be brought against the primary publisher.

The old laws on libel had been criticised for being outdated, costly and unfair - the new law seeks to ensure effective protection for freedom of expression and encourages open and honest public debate, whilst still protecting those whose reputation has been unjustly attacked.

Photo: Shailesh Vara

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