Proposals to protect libel and privacy claimants from the threat of paying a publishers' costs if they lose their claim could have a “terrible” effect on press freedom, the Daily Telegraph has warned.
Consultation began last week on the reforms, which are intended to come into effect in April and which are inspired by the Leveson Report.
They would come in at the same time as changes to the no win, no fee regime for libel cases which would reduce costs for publishers. These changes will mean that publishers no longer have to pay success fees, which increase claimant costs in successful libel claims by as much as 100 per cent.
Unveiling the new proposals on fees for libel claimants, Justice minister Helen Grant said: "Defamation and invasion of privacy can have a devastating effect on lives and it is crucial that people, whatever their means, can stand up for their rights in court even when they are facing a wealthy opponent who can afford to appoint a team of expensive lawyers."
Under the proposals, which are out for consultation until 8 November, a judge would be able to impose a "one-way" costs order in a case if it is clear one side would not otherwise be able to take part because of the potential legal bills.
This would mean that the less wealthy party would only be liable for their own legal costs, while the other party would have to pay for both sides if they lost the case.
The new rule would apply both ways, so individuals and small media organisations could also receive protection if they were contesting a case brought by a wealthy celebrity.
The Telegraph said in a comment piece yesterday: “It would hardly be conducive to investigative journalism, or simply fair, if media organisations have to pay out every time a false charge of defamation is brought against them….
“The idea of costs protection may sound nice in principle, but its practical effect upon the free press could be terrible. It would open the floodgates as individuals, aided by no-win, no-fee lawyers and freed from the risk of having to pick up the tab for losing a weak case, sue media organisations on the flimsiest of pretexts.
“Meanwhile, journalists and editors might be dissuaded from reporting stories that they fear could trigger a legal battle. Even if they believe that they have right on their side – that they could easily win the libel suit – knowing that they would have to cover the costs of a losing claimant would, understandably, make them think twice about reporting the story.”
President of the Chartered Institute of Journalists Charlie Harris has warned that changes could have particularly negative effect on local newspapers.
“This well meaning but ill-thought through plan will encourage vexatious and flippant cases against local newspapers, not only from the green-ink brigade but from people in power such as councillors and police officers."
Meanwhile, leading Irish writers have written to Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson urging him to ensure that Northern Ireland adopts the Defamation Act into its law.
The new legislation, passed in May, provides new protection for investigative journalism and other long-await reforms to the law of libel. The failure of Northern Ireland to adopt the legislation, which applies to England and Wales, raises the prospect that Belfast could become a new centre for libel tourism.
The Defamation Act is due to come into force at some point this year.