New Defamation Bill ‘to protect freedom of speech’

The Queen on a new bill

A new bill will offer more protection for freedom of speech in England and Wales, the Queen’s Speech has announced today.

The Defamation Bill is intended to ensure “fair balance” between freedom of expression and protection of reputation.  It will be the first wholesale attempt at libel reform since 1843.

Under the law claimants would have to show they have suffered serious harm before suing for defamation. The presumption in favour of jury trial would also be removed.

According to the Ministry of Justice, the new bill will also make sure that the threat of libel proceedings was not used to “frustrate robust scientific and academic debate”.

There would be also be a defence for the media of “responsible publication on matters of public interest”.

The bill would provide greater protection to operators of websites hosting user-generated content, as long as they complied with the necessary procedure to “resolve any dispute” directly with the author of the material concerned.

The draft bill, published in March last year, also aims at addressing “libel tourism” by tightening the test to be applied by the courts in relation to actions involving people who are not domiciled in the UK or EU member states.

The Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems all committed themselves to reviewing libel law in their election manifestos.

According to the lobbying group Index on Censorship: “The bill will help end libel tourism and protect free expression for journalists, writers, bloggers and scientists around the world. However, there is still work to be done and we will carry on fighting to make sure that the detail in the final bill will truly deliver reform”.

The government published its draft defamation bill in March 2011, followed by its response to the Scrutiny Committee report on the draft bill in February 2012.