In all the excitement of coalition building and the breaking out of peace and harmony between former political rivals it is interesting to see what is being said about libel reform and free speech issues. We mentioned last week that libel reform campaigners were lamenting the fact that two of their champions (Dr Harris and Ms Cash) were not elected on 7 May. But they will be pleased to see that the issue has not been forgotten. The new Con/Lib Coalition Government (the first since 1922) has published the full text of its “Coalition Agreement” and libel reform gets a mention. Point 10 of the Coalition Agreement is entitled “Civil Liberties” and says that
The parties agree to implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour Government and roll back state intrusion.
This will include: …
- The protection of historic freedoms through the defence of trial by jury.
- The restoration of rights to non-violent protest.
- The review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech
This can be compared to the manifesto commitments of the coalition partners. The Conservative Manifesto tells us, at page 90, that they will “replace the Human Rights Act with a UK Bill of Rights” (note that this used to be a “British Bill of Rights” but has now become UK wide) and that
“We will review and reform libel laws to protect freedom of speech, reduce costs and discourage libel tourism”.
On page 93 of their manifesto the Liberal Democrats promise to:
“Protect free speech, investigative journalism and academic peer reviewed publishing through reform of the English and Welsh libel laws – including by requiring corporations to show damage and prove malice or recklessness, and by providing a robust responsible journalism defence”.
In short, the Coalition Agreement is less specific than even the Conservative Manifesto but shows that the issue remains on the agenda. We hope that a proper, balanced, review can now be conducted (in the spirit of the new, balanced, Government).
Although the Coalition Agreement does not say so, we suspect that the “defence of trial by jury” is confined to criminal cases and this is not a commitment to the retention of civil juries. We will be interested to see the concrete proposals for the “restoration of rights to non-violent protest“.
The new Lord Chancellor, Ken Clarke, expressed surprise that he had been offered the job but pointed to his background as a criminal barrister. In an interview on the “World at One” today he did not exactly disavow the repeal of the Human Rights Act but showed no enthusiasm for it either. In 2006 he told the Daily Telegraph that the proposed British Bill of Rights was “Xenophobic and legal nonesense” – so perhaps he is more in tune with Liberal Democrat policy in this area.
Mr Clarke made it clear that he has not had time to consider the issues, saying, “I need to get up to speed on all the issues and I need to speak to Dominic Grieve who is preparing all of this for me“. Mr Grieve, the former Shadow Justice Secretary, is the new Attorney-General and has been involved in both the Conservative “British Bill of Rights” project (see his May 2009 lecture) and with “libel reform” (and was a participant at the “Libel Reform Hustings“).
As suggested by the new Lord Chancellor, we suspect that in the next few frenetic months, civil liberties and libel are likely to remain fairly low on the agenda but we will try and keep our readers abreast of developments.