Julian Huppert writes… an end to the chilling effects of libel action on free speech

libel-reform-campaign-logoAs we start a New Year, we always tend to look back on the past, as well as think to the future – and we do have a bad tendency to focus on the problems, not the successes.

But for a change, let’s celebrate another achievement – another manifesto commitment delivered, as the Defamation Act 2013 came into effect on New Year’s Day. This will hopefully mark an end to libel tourism, an end to the abuse of libel law by companies, and an end to the chilling effect threats of libel action on free speech. We will have a better balance between protecting reputations and supporting freedom of expression.

Our old laws were out of date – and in case after case, people were having to fight inappropriately at great expense – just think of the cases of Simon Singh and Peter Wilmshurst, sued for stating their reasoned expert opinions.

This was our work – we had it in our manifesto and put it into the coalition agreement. It was a Lib Dem Minister, Tom McNally who delivered it, based on a draft from a Lib Dem Peer, Lord Lester. This won’t stop others from claiming credit – but as John Kampfner said, ‘When we launched the Libel Reform Campaign in 2009, only the Liberal Democrats backed change.’

So what’s new? Claimants will have to prove that they have suffered serious harm in order to bring a case, which should reduce the number of trivial cases and threats.

On top of that, companies will have to prove even more – they will have to show that they suffered serious financial loss, not just a nebulous reputation damage. No more MacLibel cases.

We’ve also codified the public interest defences available – making it easier for now-lawyers to read what the law is, rather than having to rely on wading through case law.

One piece I’m particularly proud of is a new Clause 6, which I argued strenuously in favour of – protection for scientists and other academics publishing peer reviewed articles. We need freedom for people to publish their results and theories, without living in fear of legal letters and expensive proceedings. People would only be liable if the claimant could show that what they published was maliciously false – i.e. wrong and deliberately so.

We’ve ended the loophole where bookshops could be targeted for libel claims, if someone didn’t want to sue the actual author or publisher – no bookshop could defend a case on a book it sells a few copies of, so they almost invariably gave way.

Lastly, we’ve taken a more modern approach in a digital age – limiting the one-year time limit for starting web libel actions to start from when an article is first published online, rather than restarting every time it is clicked on or downloaded. Website operators will get additional protection from libel actions, with a new efficient system for allowing the author of a comment to defend it, if they wish to. This is an optional system – web operators can choose not to use this approach if they prefer, but it is available if they wish to.

This is a good piece of work, and an important update to the law. And it was thanks to us.

Julian Huppert MP served on the Draft Defamation Bill Committee, and has never yet been sued.

* Julian Huppert was the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge from 2010-15

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Mike Falchikov 6th Jan '14 - 4:01pm

    Congratulations – a fine achievement and just a wee nudge in the direction of limiting the power of the
    over-mighty in favour of the under-represented.

  • Stuart Mitchell 6th Jan '14 - 8:02pm

    I think you should have given a little more acknowledgement to Simon Singh and Sense About Science’s libel reform campaign, which kick-started the whole thing before the Lib Dems got on board.

    Fair play to the Lib Dems for being the first major party to make a commitment to this (the others followed a few months later), but you certainly weren’t the only people fighting for this, or even the first.

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