On 1 January 2014 the Defamation Act 2013 come into force, bringing about significant changes to the law of defamation. The reforms include a new threshold test of “serious harm”, a number of new defences, a new single publication rule, as well as new provisions regarding secondary publishers.
An overview of the changes, and discussion of whether they strike the right balance, can be found here: The new law of defamation: a sensible balance or step back?
Now that the new law has come into force, the Master of the Rolls and Head of Civil Justice Lord Dyson, has issued a statement regarding the changes, which in particular encourages Judges to make use of the rules to bring about an early resolution of defamation claims.
A fully-contested defamation claim can often place the parties on a rollercoaster ride of litigation, sometimes involving several interlocutory court hearings over the course of several years before reaching trial. For the moment funding arrangements are still available in defamation claims, but even where cost and cost-risk is not an issue, the litigation itself can be very stressful and consume large amounts of the parties’ time, whether they are bringing or defending a claim. This is increased by the very nature of defamation claims involving the personal reputation of the claimant party.
All parties will therefore welcome any steps that are taken to try to bring about an early resolution of defamation claims.
The Master of the Rolls has made this statement in response to concerns raised in Parliament that early resolution processes should be encouraged as part of the new legislation, and concerns also that the new Act may not be as extensive as anticipated.
Lord Dyson states that he is “confident that the courts have the powers they need to ensure early resolution of defamation cases, and are fully aware of the importance of using these powers”. The steps highighted by him include the removal of the presumption of trial by jury in defamation claims, the encouragement given in the defamation pre-action protocol to parties to use forms of alternative dispute resolution (ADR), and the recent more general changes to the Civil Procedure Rules aimed at enabling judges to case-manage claims more effectively.
Lord Dyson concluded:
“All of us – Parliament, Government, the Judiciary, the CPRC and everyone with an interest in this area of law – will want to see the effects of the Act and the new procedural framework on cases and will expect to see earlier resolution of disputes than before”.
Whether that intention is carried through into practice remains to be seen as the new principles are applied. The interests of determining a dispute justly must always outweigh speed so, as with the other intentions behind the reforms, there is a careful balance to be struck. The judicial support for early resolution of defamation cases is though likely to be welcomed by parties in this practice area.