After 48 months of lobbying, three public consultations, two working groups, and seven parliamentary debates, the UK defamation reform bill passed in the House of Lords. Leading up to yesterday’s vote, speculation swirled as to whether or not the law would even be introduced for a vote. But it was, and it passed. So, sayonara 170-year-old UK libel laws. Congratulations Brits, you’ve finally lost your title of the “libel tourism capital of the world.”
Lord Lester’s UK Defamation Reform Bill
Venerated UK human rights lawyer Lord Lester spearheaded the UK’s defamation reform bill, though the movement included other politicians, citizen activists, and media watch groups. For nearly half a decade, defamation reform advocates pushed to:
- Bolster free speech protection for the press – including bloggers and online media outlets; and
- Diminish the number of libel tourism lawsuits filed in UK courts.
To achieve its goals, Lord Lester’s reform bill bars foreign parties from filing UK defamation lawsuits unless plaintiffs can prove “serious harm” and more than a tenuous connection to the country. In addition, the bill allows for “fair comment” as an acceptable defense to defamation charges, plus includes stipulations regarding “substantial financial loss”in corporate defamation cases.
What Got Knocked Down In UK Defamation Reform?
UK libel reform advocates didn’t get everything they wanted. Lawmakers rejected an amendment preventing third party government contractors from suing critics without proving “substantial financial loss”. Most reformers are disappointed about the omission, but nevertheless are pleased with the reform results.
The Rocky Road To UK Defamation Reform
The road to UK defamation reform was bumpy, in large part because of a phone hacking scandal.
News International Phone Hacking Scandal
Two years ago, just as Lord Lester’s defamation reform bill was about to sail through Parliament, the News International Phone Hacking scandal broke, and a formal inquiry began.
Chaired by Lord Justice Leveson, investigators focused on two things — a) industry ethics and b) improper conduct on both the part of the newspaper and law enforcement.
Beef Up The Media Regulatory Agency
In November 2012, the committee published findings from part I of Leveson’s public hearings. The report suggests replacing the current, self-regulatory Press Complaint Company.
Like the PCC, membership fees would fund the proposed media regulatory agency, with each outlet having a board seat. So, what’s the difference between the proposed agency and the old one? The new agency could issue fines, dole out sanctions, and run an “inquisitorial arbitration service.” It could also impose “exemplary damages” on parties that don’t participate in the new PCC.
In other words, the agency would have more power.
Will Proposed Media Agency Still Make Bloggers Personas Non Grata?
Many support the creation of a new media monitoring agency. However, detractors think that the committee’s proposed agency could hurt bloggers and online outlets disproportionately.
Kirsty Hughes, CEO of Index of Censorship, explained that Leveson’s recommendation hurts bloggers and smaller online media outlets because it “introduces a layer of political control that is extremely undesirable.” How? Well, under the proposal, non-payers are subjected to higher fines and stricter sanctions, which is a concern for smaller outlets. Hughes also highlighted the “absurdity” of forced participation in a regulatory body “that was not intended for them in the first place.”
UK Defamation Laws vs. US Defamation Laws
Before the House of Lords passed Lord Lester’s bill, UK libel laws were stunningly plaintiff-friendly. In fact, U.S. legislators passed the SPEECH Act to protect American citizens from paying unreasonable UK defamation award damages.
Kelly Warner handles all manners of international defamation lawsuits and litigation. If you’re a company or a private citizen in search of international defamation litigation counsel, please get in touch today.