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Liberal libel law

7 January 2011

Nick Clegg today announced ‘ambitious’ plans to reform Britain’s ‘laughing stock’ libel laws, and a draft libel bill is due this spring. Reform is certainly needed, but it should not be easier for journalists to be sloppy or for bloggers to lie.

Some of the suggested reforms seem to echo recent developments in the common law. It is already established that trivial comments cannot be defamatory . Similarly, it has always been a defence that a statement is true, and honest comments are also not defamatory. A defendant may also claim qualified privilege if he acted in good faith and without malice. So what would the proposed new defence of speaking out in the public interest add?

The key issue which needs reform is the huge legal costs involved which means that defendants settle unmeritorious cases. Reform has been attempted previously. The government should concentrate on this; there have been enough reports and if effective reform is enacted, libel bullying and libel tourism will wane.

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