Defamation Act 2013 aims to improve libel laws

Old Bailey Campaigners have welcomed the changes

Related Stories

New libel laws aimed at giving better protection to people expressing their opinions are to come into force in England and Wales.

Claimants will have to show they have suffered "serious harm" before suing, under the Defamation Act 2013.

The changes - coming in on 1 January - will also address "libel tourism".

The government said the law would reverse the "chilling effect" current libel laws have had on freedom of expression and legitimate debate.

Journalists, scientists and academics have faced unfair legal threats for fairly criticising a company, person or product in the past, the Ministry of Justice said.

It said the Act would provide "clearer, better protection for people publicly expressing opinions", while campaigners said it was "good news for free speech" but urged Northern Ireland to follow suit.

'Hard-fought battle'

The Defamation Act 2013 contains a series of measures, including:

  • "New serious harm threshold" aimed at helping people to understand when claims should be brought and discourage wasteful use of court time
  • Protection for scientists and academics publishing peer-reviewed material in scientific and academic journals
  • Protection for those publishing material on a matter of public interest where they reasonably believe that it is in the public interest
  • Libel tourism targeted by tightening the test for claims involving those with little connection to England and Wales being brought before the courts
  • Introduction of a new process aimed at helping potential victims of defamation online, by resolving the dispute directly with the person who has posted the statement
  • Single-publication rule to prevent repeated claims against a publisher about the same material

Justice minister Shailesh Vara said: "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.

Analysis

So, will the new Act bring significant change?

In many respects it is an exercise in codifying, simplifying and giving statutory force to existing law. For instance, courts had already started to dismiss "libel tourism" cases and jury trials had all but vanished in defamation cases. The power to achieve these things are now put into the Act.

However, the Act will affect the balance between free speech and the right to protect reputation. For instance, it will be more difficult for companies to sue for libel as they now have to show they have suffered or are likely to suffer serious harm because of a defamatory statement, and they will only be able to do that if they can show they have suffered or are likely to suffer serious financial harm. That makes it tougher for them to go after journalists or scientists who write about their products and services.

There is also more protection from libel for those running websites if they can show they are not the authors of defamatory posts and assist in identifying those who are.

"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 Libel Reform Campaign, which is made up of Index on Censorship, English PEN and Sense About Science, has been demanding new legislation since 2009.

Mike Harris, of the campaign, said it was "good news for free speech".

"The Defamation Act was intended by politicians to end the chill from the archaic libel laws of England and Wales," he said.

"It's taken four years, support from 60,000 people and a cross-party consensus to get to where we are today.

"We hope the judiciary will take note, and that in the future open debate on matters in the public interest will not be chilled by litigious oligarchs or corporations."

Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science, said the Act was a "major step".

But she added: "A lot will depend on how the courts apply the new law. We will keep it under review to see that the law does give scientists the increased confidence to publish that it promises."

'Fit for 21st Century'

The new Act applies only to England and Wales - Scotland has its own law and Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill has said he believes it is "robust enough for present purposes".

The Stormont executive is currently considering whether to bring its libel laws inline with Westminster.

Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, said England and Wales now had laws "fit for the 21st Century but the battle's not over yet".

"It's essential that Northern Ireland now adopts the act. Otherwise the new law could be fatally undermined and cases could be heard in Belfast under the old legislation," she said.

The main political parties committed themselves to reviewing libel law in England and Wales in their manifestos at the last general election.

A draft bill was published in 2011, with the Defamation Bill outlined in the Queen's speech in May last year. The Defamation Act 2013 received Royal Assent on 25 April.

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More UK stories

RSS

Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • getawayDigital detox

    If you can’t shake your device addiction on your own, there’s a getaway for you

Programmes

  • Hitch-hiking robot HitchBOTClick Watch

    Hitch-hiking robot HitchBOT completes a 6,000 km (3,700 mile) trip plus other tech news

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.