The Lord Chancellor and Ministry of Justice Jack Straw has continued his support for reform of the law of libel – showing admirable responsiveness to public opinion or pandering to interest group lobbying (depending on your point of view).   There have been two developments today.  First, the “Libel Working Group” has reported.  The 85 page report deals with four areas “libel tourism”, the multiple publication rule, a statutory public interest defence and procedural issues.   On libel tourism  it considered that more rigorous application of the current rules would be appropriate (pp.15-17), the (pro-media) majority were of the view that a single publication rule with discretion was the best option (p.21).   It recommended further work on a statutory public interest defence (p.33).

Following the publication of the report, Jack Straw announced:

  • The current multiple publication rule will be replaced with a ‘single publication rule.’ This will ensure that claimants in libel proceedings cannot bring a case against every publication or download of a story repeating the same claims. For example, when an article published by one outlet is held on an online archive. Instead, claimants will only be able to bring a single action, within one year of the date of the original publication. The interests of people who are defamed will be protected by giving the court the power to extend this period where necessary.
  • Consideration will be given to a statutory defence to protect publications that are in the public interest. This will help address the ‘chilling effect’ that the threat of libel proceedings can sometimes have on investigative journalism, which occurs when media outlets and NGOs are cautious about publishing important information due to the threat of legal action.
  • The government will also move to prevent the growth of ‘libel tourism’ – when foreign claimants use English courts to make libel claims against foreign publications outside the EU which can be accessed in the UK. This will include asking the Civil Procedure Rule Committee to consider tightening the rules where the court’s permission is required to serve defamation cases outside England and Wales. This will help head off inappropriate claims at the earliest stage and stop them from reaching court.

Put shortly,  the only concrete reform proposed is the introduction of a “single publication” rule.  This has already been the subject of consultation and the Government has decided, in principle, in favour of such a rule.  A statutory public interest defence is being considered along with “tightening procedural rules”.

It is difficult to see how this modest package of measures justifies the headline of “Libel reform bill to tackle ‘libel tourism'” (the Guardian) or “Libel Reform Bill to achieve ‘fair balance’” (Press Gazette).    A cynical observer might think that the headlines are what is most important to the Government which, having substantially ignored libel reform for 13 years, is now treating the matter as one of great urgency shortly before a General Election.