Cap libel damages at £10,000, says report

Libel damages should be capped at £10,000 as a way to help prevent England’s out-of-date laws making it a “global pariah”, free speech campaigners said today.

English PEN and Index on Censorship said urgent action was needed to reform out-dated libel laws to help prevent libel tourism and to restrict wealthy individuals that “bully people who try to hold them to account”.

The two organisations have published a report, titled Free Speech Is Not For Sale, identifying ten areas of concern and a series of recommendations they say should form the basis of a Libel Bill to update the existing system.

The report said current laws have a “negative impact” on freedom of expression both in the UK and around the world as wealthy foreigners can bring libel actions in England against foreign publications which are distributed in this country.

The Ministry of Justice says it would “carefully consider” the suggestions.

The report said: “English libel law imposes unnecessary and disproportionate restrictions on free speech, sending a chilling effect through the publishing and journalism sectors in the UK.

“This effect now reaches around the world, because of so-called ‘libel tourism’, where foreign cases are heard in London, widely known as a ‘town named sue’.

“The law was designed to serve the rich and powerful, and does not reflect the interests of a modern democratic society.”

The report suggest that liberal regulation would better serve the public interest than the current strict regime that restricts media freedom, however it says journalists should not be able to defame people “with impunity”.

John Kampfner, former New Statesman editor and now chief executive of Index on Censorship, said: “If we don’t act we’re at risk of becoming a global pariah.

“There are US states who view English libel law as so damaging to free speech they have passed laws to effectively block the decisions of English judges.

“Our report is an important milestone in modernising our antiquated and chilling approach to free expression.”

Free Speech Is Not For Sale recommendations:

  • Cap libel damages at £10,000 and make an apology the chief remedy to counter the problem that English law is more about making money than protecting reputation
  • Shift the burden of proof so claimants have to demonstrate damage, thereby removing the anomaly that the defendant is guilty until proven innocent
  • Preventing cases from being heard in London unless 10 per cent of copies of the offending publication are circulated in England to tackle “libel tourism”
  • Stop large and medium-sized companies from being able to launch libel actions unless they can prove malicious falsehood
  • Make some internet comments exempt as part of efforts to reflect the arrival of the web
  • Establish a libel tribunal, along the lines of employment tribunals, as an alternative to court trials
  • Reduce the prohibitive cost of defending libel actions by capping base costs and making success fees non-recoverable
  • Strengthen the public interest defence, expanding the definition of fair comment and introducing a “single publication” rule

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