The Government has promised reform of the libel laws to provide a “fair balance” between freedom of expression and protection of reputation.
Justice Minister Lord McNally said there would be a wide-ranging consultation exercise over the summer with publication of a draft Bill early in the new year.
This was not a “vague promise” but a “firm commitment to act on this matter”, he told peers at the end of the Second Reading debate on the Defamation Bill introduced by Liberal Democrat Lord Lester of Herne Hill.
The move would give ministers a “strong case for making time in the 2011-12 legislative programme for a substantive Bill”, Lord McNally said, adding: “We recognise the concerns raised in recent months about the detrimental effects that the current law may be having on freedom of expression – particularly in relation to academic and scientific debate, the work of non-governmental organisations and investigative journalism.
“In reviewing the law we want to focus on ensuring that freedom of speech and academic debate are protected and a fair balance is struck between freedom of expression and the protection of reputation.
“We want to ensure that the right balance is achieved so people who have been defamed are able to take action to protect their reputation but so that freedom of speech is not unjustifiably impeded.”
Lord McNally said: “Ensuring the right balance is struck is a difficult and sensitive exercise.
“It raises very complex issues on which a wide range of differing views are likely to be held. It’s important to ensure that that range of views from all interested parties are taken into account before we move further.”
The Government was “not rushing to legislation but considering very carefully how to proceed”, he added.
Lord Lester said that, while listening to the minister, he had “wondered if I’m alive at all or whether I’m in heaven, because I never thought to hear a reply of that kind”.
The Government had indicated an “open-mindedness for reform, a willingness to get on, a willingness to listen”, he said, adding: “I’m sure that it’s better for the Government to have a draft Bill and then a joint committee looking at the draft Bill… and then, hoping that we’re in good health, an actual Bill, which I hope will start in this House.”
The Bill was given an unopposed second reading.
Lord McNally’s announcement was swiftly welcomed by campaigners for reform of the libel laws.
Jonathan Heawood, director of English PEN, said: “Until the Libel Reform Bill is actually passed, the right to free speech in this country will be conditional on writers or scientists having deep pockets or a willingness to fight for years through the Courts.
“It should no longer be a matter for judges but Parliamentarians should decide on how we balance free expression and reputation.”
John Kampfner, chief executive officer of Index on Censorship, said: “Today the government listened to the 52,000 people who backed the English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science campaign to re-design our libel laws and have committed, for the first time in a century, to wholesale reform.
“We are delighted, but obviously we’ll need to see how bold the government will be – they must stop libel tourism, cut the obscene legal costs involved and give cast iron protections to free speech.”
Tracey Brown, managing director of Sense About Science said: “Lord Lester told the House today that this is the first occasion in modern times on which Parliament has the opportunity to examine the substance of English defamation law. Proper libel reform can only come from legislation from Parliament – common law has not kept up.”
Calls for the libel laws to be reformed were backed by the last government, amid fears that the the UK has become a destination for so-called “libel tourism”.
Earlier in the debate, Lord Lester had told peers that the measures in his Bill would help counter the “chilling effect” on freedom of speech caused by the current regime, which prevented information coming out and encouraged “self-censorship”.
He had earlier called on ministers to use his backbench legislation as a basis for Government-backed changes which could become “a model across the common law world and beyond”.
The aim of the Bill was to strike a fair balance between private reputation and public information as protected by the common law and constitutional right to freedom of expression.
Lord McNally, deputy leader of the Lords, said ministers would not oppose the second reading of Lord Lester’s Bill and and welcomed its introduction but added that they could not simply adopt its provisions to reform libel laws.
A wide range of consultations would take place over the summer with a Government draft Bill early in the new year and a “strong case” for a full Bill in 2011-12.
“We are worried about the so-called chilling effect and we’re keen to give careful consideration to ideas for improvements which could be made to address libel tourism,” Lord McNally said said.
For the Opposition, Lord Bach said Labour were in favour of reform of the libel laws to achieve a better balance between the right to personal reputation and the right to free speech.
Jo Glanville, editor of Index on Censorship, said: “We are absolutely delighted about this but obviously there’s still a very long way to go.
“There will be consultations and nobody knows what this will end up looking like.
“But it’s a real triumph.”
Index on Censorship, English PEN and Sense About Science have been campaigning for reform of the libel law for a year and applauded the possible positive effects the review could have for academic debate.
“This is not just about the media,” Glanville said.
“Some politicians see it as giving the media a licence to print scurrilous stories. But it is about scientific and academic debate and anyone with anything controversial to say.”