The outdated offences of criminal libel and sedition have been abolished after the introduction of new laws.
The two offences were disposed of yesterday as Section 73 of the Coroners and Justice 2009 came into effect, sweeping away the old common law offences of sedition, seditious libel, obscene libel and defamatory libel.
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Justice Minister Claire Ward said: “Sedition and seditious and defamatory libel are arcane offences – from a bygone era when freedom of expression wasn’t seen as the right it is today.
“Freedom of speech is now seen as the touchstone of democracy, and the ability of individuals to criticise the state is crucial to maintaining freedom.
“The existence of these obsolete offences in this country had been used by other countries as justification for the retention of similar laws which have been actively used to suppress political dissent and restrict press freedom.
“Abolishing these offences will allow the UK to take a lead in challenging similar laws in other countries, where they are used to suppress free speech.”
The old offence of sedition – essentially an attack on the sovereign or institutions of government – included exciting disaffection against the institutions of government with an intention to incite violence or create public disorder.
Seditious libel was publishing seditious material in a written or permanent form.
As common law offences, both sedition and seditious libel were punishable with unlimited fines or imprisonment.
Defamatory libel – in effect a criminal counterpart to the civil defamation – consisted of publishing defamatory matter calculated to expose a person to public hatred, contempt or ridicule, in a permanent form.
To warrant criminal proceedings, the alleged libel had to be serious enough to justify a prosecution in the public interest.
Criminal libel originally covered four distinct categories of libel: obscenity, blasphemous, defamatory and seditious.
But obscene material is now covered by the Obscene Publications Acts of 1959 and 1964, while blasphemous libel was abolished in England and Wales by section 79 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008.
The Law Commission provisionally recommended the abolition of the offence of sedition in 1977. In 1985 it recommended replacing the common law offence of defamatory libel with a narrowly drawn statutory offence.