Cheering the changes

It's generally possible to distinguish between a peer campaigning for a change in the law and a ray of sunshine.

But not yesterday. Rushing through the corridors around the House of Lords, between interviews, I happened upon Lord Lester, who's been campaigning for a reform of the laws on defamation ("libel" to you and me), arguing that they are increasingly having "a chilling effect" on free speech.

The Lib Dem superlawyer was all but purring as he read the government's response to the work of a joint parliamentary committee, which has been scrutinising a draft bill on the issue.

The government agrees that before suing for defamation, claimants would have to show they'd suffered serious harm - to stop squabbles over trivia being fought out in long expensive court actions. It proposes a system of preliminary hearings in which a judge could throw out spurious cases, and would, crucially, have the power to cap costs, so that one side or the other couldn't run up huge bills, with the implicit threat of financial ruin if costs were awarded against the other.

There would be a workable defence for the media of "responsible public journalism", a spruced-up version of the so-called "Reynolds Defence" in which inaccurate allegations against the former Irish Prime Minister were justified on the basis that they had been responsibly put together and were so serious that they deserved to be aired. That defence has subsequently not worked very well, but a new, more explicit version should.

There's also a proposal for an "honest opinion" defence to replace the current, rather ineffectual defence of "fair comment".

More public events would be covered by "qualified privilege", so that a fair and accurate report of them would be protected from defamation actions - so the protection applied to reporting what is said at local council meetings, would be applied to, for example, the proceedings of scientific conferences.

Legal challenges to what's written in scientific journals are one of the major concerns about the current state of the law. There's lots more - about defamation online and controlling costs, for example.

The expectation is that there will be a bill in the Queen's Speech, in May. It will give the government a chance to push through a reform that is more or less cost free and is popular with almost everyone - the exception being specialist libel lawyers.

UPDATE: It turns out that it is possible to distinguish other libel reformers from a ray of sunshine. Lord Lester may be happy, but others are extremely disappointed with the government response. Their complaints include the lack of a ban on companies suing for libel and of a full-on public interest defence. They think the revamp of the Reynolds Defence which pleases Lord Lester, may actually make things worse for journalists. They're promising to e-mail me with a full list of the faults they see in the government response, which sounds as if it could be quite an extensive document.

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