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Libel law reform campaigners seek £10,000 damages cap

English libel law imposes disproportionate restrictions on free speech, according to an independent report that recommends 10 changes to the laws. The Ministry of Justice said today that it will launch a consultation on defamation and the internet.10 Nov 2009

English PEN, a charity that promotes the human rights of writers and publishers, and Index on Censorship, a body that promotes freedom of expression, spent a year investigating English libel laws. Their joint report, Free Speech Is Not For Sale, was published today.

They say that England's libel law "was designed to serve the rich and powerful and does not reflect the interests of a modern democratic society." They have proposed 10 changes to current laws that they want the Government to introduce in a Libel Bill.

The authors say that the chief remedy in libel should be an apology, not financial reward.

"English libel law is more about making money than saving a reputation," says the report. "The courts should take the financial incentive out of libel law by capping damages at £10,000. If a claimant wishes to demand more then they would need to prove material damage such as loss of earnings."

The report also says that the definition of 'publication' is no longer fit for the internet age. "Each newspaper sold or website hit currently constitutes a new libel - the so-called multiple publication rule – a principle that renders online newspaper archives uniquely vulnerable to libel actions," says the report. That rule – known as the Duke of Brunswick rule – is the subject of a Government consultation that closes on 16th December.

The Ministry of Justice said it would "carefully consider" today's recommendations, according to the BBC.

The recommendations of English PEN and Index on Censorship

These have been reproduced from the report.

  1. In libel, the defendant is guilty until proven innocent
    We recommend: Require the claimant to demonstrate damage and falsity
  2. English libel law is more about making money than saving a reputation
    We recommend: Cap damages at £10,000
  3. The definition of ‘publication’ defies common sense
    We recommend: Abolish the Duke of Brunswick rule and introduce a single publication rule
  4. London has become an international libel tribunal
    We recommend: No case should be heard in this jurisdiction unless at least 10 per cent of copies of the relevant publication have been circulated here
  5. There are few viable alternatives to a full trial
    We recommend: Establish a libel tribunal as a low-cost forum for hearings
  6. There is no robust public interest defence in libel law
    We recommend: Strengthen the public interest defence
  7. Comment is not free
    We recommend: Expand the definition of fair comment
  8. The potential cost of defending a libel action is prohibitive
    We recommend: Cap base costs and make success fees and ‘After the Event’ (ATE) insurance premiums non-recoverable
  9. The law does not reflect the arrival of the internet
    We recommend: Exempt interactive online services and interactive chat from liability
  10. Not everything deserves a reputation
    We recommend: Exempt large and medium-sized corporate bodies and associations from libel law unless they can prove malicious falsehood