Britain is to overhaul its archaic libel laws to stamp out ‘libel tourism’ by wealthy individuals and corporations who flock to British courts to sue for defamation.
Opponents of the current libel laws say they make it too easy for the rich and powerful to bring cases in Britain — or to use the threat of expensive action to stifle free speech.
“London has become the world’s libel capital. Foreign claimants with insignificant connections with this country use our courts to silence critics, when accused of activities such as funding terrorism and dumping toxic waste in Africa,” Anthony Lester, a barrister who has championed libel reform, wrote in the Times newspaper, Reuters reports.
The first draft of a bill put forward by ministers on Tuesday proposes reforming current laws to allow courts to strike out trivial claims, and making it harder to bring to court overseas claims that have little connection to Britain.
It also includes a new public interest defence and recommends a single publication rule, so that repeat claims for libel could not be made every time a publication is accessed on the internet.
“For too long our outdated libel laws gave made it easy for the powerful and the wealthy to stifle fair criticism,” Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said in a statement.
“We cannot continue to tolerate a culture in which scientists, journalists and bloggers are afraid to tackle issues of public importance for fear of being sued.”
Scientists and academics in particular argue the current law allows powerful corporations to use the threat of civil action to suppress debate, and some argue that corporations and public bodies should be prevented from suing for libel altogether.
The draft bill did not recommend this and ministers said they focussed on changing the “inequality of arms” that prevents the poor from suing over defamation or from publishing freely without fear of being unable to mount a defence against cases brought by the wealthy.
The proposed bill did not include provisions over internet publication. Minister of State Lord McNally said he expected a three-month consultation, which now follows publication of the first draft, would help to refine laws in this area.