The Defamation Bill amends the law of defamation. The Bill is primarily concerned with the English civil law of libel and slander (defamation) - the torts which protect a person’s reputation.
The common law offences of criminal libel, seditious libel, blasphemous libel, and obscene libel – relics from the Court of Star Chamber – were abolished by the last Parliament.
The proposals impact upon media publishers. Following agreement by both Houses on the text of the Bill it received Royal Assent on 25 April. The Bill is now an Act of Parliament (law).
Objectives of the Bill
- strike a fair balance between private reputation and public information as protected by the common law and constitutional right to freedom of expression;
- modernise the defences to defamation proceedings of privilege, fair comment, justification, and innocent dissemination, in accordance with the overriding requirements of the public interest;
- require claimants to demonstrate that they have suffered or are likely to suffer real harm as a result of the defamatory publication of which they complain
- require corporate claimants to prove financial loss (or the likelihood of such loss) as a condition of establishing liability;
- encourage the speedy resolution of disputes;
- make the normal mode of trial, trial by judge alone rather than by judge and jury;
- enable the Speaker of either House of Parliament to waive Parliamentary privilege as regards evidence concerning proceedings in Parliament; and
- modernise statutory privilege.
The Bill does not deal with
- the regulation of costs in defamation proceedings, for which statutory powers already exist;
- the award of damages, as to which the principles now established by the courts give sufficient guidance to ensure reasonable legal certainty and proportionality; and
- questions about misuse of private information, breach of confidence, or data protection, which are beyond its scope.
Arrangement of clauses
- Clauses 1-5 Defences: responsible publication on matters of public interest, honest opinion, and truth.
- Clauses 6-8 Statutory privilege: absolute privilege for reports of court and Parliamentary proceedings, and other reports protected by qualified privilege.
- Clauses 9-10 Publication: responsibility for publication and the multiple publication rule.
- Clauses 11-13 Cause of action: corporate claimants, trivial claims and publication outside the jurisdiction.
- Clauses 14-15 Trial by jury: reversal of presumption and determining an application.
- Clause 16 Evidence concerning proceedings in Parliament.
- Clauses 17-19 Miscellaneous and supplementary provisions.
Important issues for media publishers
Media lawyers have given a mixed response to the Defamation Bill. On the one hand there is now almost universal agreement that reform of libel law is necessary’.
However, the issue of costs and the need for firmer, more pro-active case management must also be tackled. According to one barrister, there is a balance to be struck between free speech and the protection of reputations, which could be ‘trashed without redress if responsible journalism amendments go too far.