UK Politics

Coalition won't shirk libel law reform, says minister

The coalition "will not shirk" from reforming the UK's libel laws, Attorney General Dominic Grieve has said.

Mr Grieve said changes were needed to reflect the globalised world, the rise of the internet and the growth of speculative no-win, no-fee claims.

Image caption Dominic Grieve said the reforms would be a difficult task

He told a Tory conference meeting that Lord Lester's Defamation Bill largely reflects ministers' thinking.

Measures in that bill include modernising some defences and reducing the right for juries to hear cases.

The Libel Reform campaign event heard about shortcomings with current UK libel laws from a series of speakers.

Author Simon Singh, who recently won a case against him for libel, said the costs of defences - even successful ones - meant there was now self-censorship and cases where it did not pay to defend claims even when the dfefendant was in the right.

Sarah Hunter, from Google, said third parties such as the global search engine had no idea whether many of the items they linked to were true or not and had no defence under current libel laws.

Unless the laws were modernised there would be increasing self-censorship on the internet, she added.

Libel tourism

John Whittingdale, Conservative chairman of the House of Commons culture and media committee, said it was "essential" that there was reform of the libel laws.

He said his committee's inquiry last year had heard from "editor after editor" saying they were no longer able to print stories because of the fear of "huge costs".

Jo Glanville, from Index on Censorship, said that it was increasingly not just journalists being sued, but also non-governmental organisations and campaign groups.

There have been high profile cases of so-called "libel tourism" in recent years, where people from other countries have brought a libel case in a British court.

Mr Grieve, who stressed that it would be Justice Secretary Ken Clarke rather than him who would be bringing forward a libel reform bill, said tackling the soaring levels of costs was one of the government's priorities.

"The problem is that the circumstances in which libel can occur have changed hugely," he said, adding that in the internet age, there was a globalised world where people were suing across borders.

He said the challenge was to reform the laws so that people had the ability to protect their reputation while also not harming the principle of free speech.

It will be a "difficult task... but we are not going to shirk from it", he said.

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