Celebrity libel claims drop to five-year low

Defamation cases involving celebrities have dropped to a five-year low in what could be seen as further evidence of the chilling effect of the Leveson Inquiry, according to new research.

There were only seven defamation cases over the last year, according to figures from Sweet & Maxwell, including Sven-Göran Eriksson’s ex-partner Nancy Dell’Olio, former Smiths frontman Morrissey and Welsh singer Charlotte Church.

The figures also revealed there was a 36 per cent drop in cases brought against traditional media such as newspapers and broadcasters – dropping to a five-year low of just 27 cases.

In total there were 71 defamation court cases in the year to 31 May, down 15 per cent year on year.

David Price Solicitors partner Korieh Duodu said the research suggested journalists had become more risk averse since the phone-hacking scandal erupted in July.

"Public scrutiny following the eruption of the phone-hacking scandal is leading to a lower appetite for risk for some media outlets," he said.

“Phone-hacking has put journalistic standards under the microscope like never before.

"Media companies are concerned that the phone-hacking scandal could lead to the imposition of a statutory media standards regulator, and they are have made every effort to put their own houses in order to avoid this.That will mean a more conciliatory, less controversial approach and fewer defamation cases."

He also suggested another reason for the fall in libel cases is that cases are becoming harder to win for celebrities.

"The hurdles to bringing a successful defamation claim are higher because of recent court decisions which should make it easier for media companies to defend claims," said Duodu.

"Two important rulings in the UK's appeal courts should mean that media companies now find it easier to run defences of 'responsible journalism' or 'comment'

"More claimants are being advised that their case may not be strong enough, even though it may well have succeeded previously."

Sweet & Maxwell pointed out that the Defamation Bill currently making its way through Parliament could have a big impact on the number and type of defamation cases in the years ahead.

"There has been a lot of grandstanding by politicians and other campaigners about the changes in the Defamation Bill, but in my view the legislation fails to include very much that is revolutionary," Duodu said.

"Most of the Bill is concerned with putting into legislation recent changes made by judges in the courts to promote freedom of expression."

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