Following Nick Clegg’s announcement of a draft Defamation Bill to be published in the Spring, in response to unprecedented pressure from the media and following what has been one of the most successful US lobbying campaigns since that initiated by the tobacco industry some years ago, it will be interesting to see the reaction to what has been a totally unjustified clamour for reform.
I say this particularly bearing in mind the embarrassment caused to the American lobbyists and legislators as a result of the recently published statistics establishing beyond any doubt that, contrary to press speculation on both sides of the Atlantic, the number of international libel claims brought before the UK Courts has been miniscule, thereby further exposing the totally disproportionate response to what is, to all intents and purposes, a “non issue”.
Of even more significance will be the attitude of our Courts to future requests for enforcement of US judgments against UK citizens and companies in cases involving grossly excessive punitive damages and attorneys’ fees, the latter often amounting to almost fifty percent of the damages awarded. To reverse the argument put forward by the lobbyists in the US Libel Tourism debate, such judgments would never be countenanced by a UK Court and the scale of such awards are offensive to all basic principles of British law.
If we are to believe everything we read in the press and the extensive coverage of the so called libel tourism problem, then you would think that the UK Courts were being besieged by multiple claims from numerous international litigants seeking to obtain justice by the back door, which is of course nonsense as the facts and figures have now established. The truth of the matter is that the media have seized upon an opportunity to snuff out one of the last opportunities for the general public to seek redress from an increasingly reckless press, who already have the financial clout to see off any unfortunate individual having the temerity to take them on, unless that individual is a man of substantial means.
Unfortunately the powerful lobbying platform enjoyed by the press is not available to the supporters of our Defamation laws, in what has been, at best, a one sided debate in the media. Indeed, the so called “chilling effect” referred to by Mr Clegg is in reality inflicted on the man on the street, whose options for seeking vindication of his reputation and the truth are now more limited than ever.
The irony is that the UK broadsheets are generally regarded to be among the most credible and respected in the world, which is in no small measure due to our fair and balanced libel laws!
Paul Tweed, a media lawyer of more than thirty years standing, is Johnsons Solicitors‘ senior partner and practices from offices in Northern Ireland, England and the Republic of Ireland. He is also registered as a foreign legal consultant by the State Bar of California. He served on the former UK Justice Secretary’s Working Group on Libel Reform, and is acknowledged in Chambers Directory as one of the leading media lawyers in the UK and Ireland, acting for high profile international claimant and defendant clients.