Lord Anthony Lester writes: Free speech is the lifeblood of democracy

When I began drafting my private member’s bill to reform the law of libel in early 2010, with the help of the Libel Reform Campaign, the Lib Dems were the only party committed to reform, having grasped the chilling effect on free speech caused by the vagueness and uncertainty of the law, and the extortionate legal costs which accompany it.

By the time of the election that year, successful campaigning meant that all three main parties included libel reform in their manifesto commitments.

A pledge to reform libel law to better protect freedom of expression was included in the coalition agreement, and one of the coalition Government’s earliest commitments was to bring forward its own Defamation Bill. Now, after three years of drafting, consultation, pre-legislative scrutiny and debate, we are about to see a Bill on the statute book which will be fit for purpose in the 21st Century and flexible enough to keep apace with future technological developments.

The Defamation Bill returns to the House of Lords on Tuesday of this week and it is vital that we use this final opportunity to make the Bill the best that it can be.

Last week the House of Commons rejected one of the key changes which had been made to the Bill with cross party support in the Lords – to require companies to show that they have suffered financial loss, rather than just reputational damage, and to prevent public bodies from suing individuals who criticise their performance of their public functions.

I hope that the Government will deal with the problem of companies through their own amendment, to ensure that individuals cannot be bullied by companies with deep pockets wishing to avoid criticism.

And I will table an amendment designed to confirm the principle established in the Derbyshire case, in which the House of Lords held that central and local government bodies cannot sue for libel, since it is of the highest public importance that such democratically elected bodies should be open to uninhibited public criticism.

Opportunities for reform do not come around often. Until now, libel law has remained the preserve of specialist lawyers skilled in its complex rules and procedures. Judges have been left to fashion the law, in concert with some piecemeal statutory reform in the 1950s and 1990s.

Libel law raises important constitutional issues; it is not simply a matter of private disputes between individuals. Free speech is the lifeblood of democracy and it is vital that Parliament makes the most of this opportunity to find a fairer balance.

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5 Comments

  • Dear Lord Lester, I agree with you about free speech being the lifeblood of democracy. For me the heart of any democracy is the ability to hold power to account, through the courts if necessary. It is therefore tragic that more of your colleagues (within the Liberal Democrats and without) were not prepared to stand up for the rights citizens of this country have enjoyed since the Civil War to open justice when they voted in favour of the Justice and Security Bill. It was particularly tragic that more peers could not be prevailed upon to vote against the principle of secret courts in ordinary civil claims (including habeas corpus) when the Bill was debated at Second Reading in the Lords in November last year. We will have to wait and see the effects of such a terrible breach of constitutional principle as the cases of torture and kidnap involving the complicity and/or involvement of British operational personnel and even Ministers are held behind closed doors in the years and decades to come. Yours, Jo Shaw

  • David Boothroyd 22nd Apr '13 - 7:40pm

    Lord Anthony Lester eh? Which Duke or Marquess is he the son of?

  • ” to require companies to show that they have suffered financial loss,”

    Normally I’d disagree with an eminent QC with a lot of trepidation but this just isn’t correct. The act (at least when it came from the Lords had a threshold of SUBSTANTIAL financial loss.

    That’s now the third time on LDV that this section has been referred to as without the correct test being used – and substantial financial loss is pretty obviously a (much) higher test than just straightforward financial loss.

  • Yellow Bill 23rd Apr '13 - 7:48am

    Mickft said “Jo Shaw. You flounced out of the party instead of staying to fight. Why should any of us listen to you ever again?”

    Perhaps Mick, because she showed a better moral compass than those who are supporting secret courts.

  • I think the points I make are valid ones, whether or not I am a party member.

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