In an effort to “strike the right balance- between protection of freedom of speech on the one hand and protection of reputation on the other,” the UK government have recently published their draft defamation bill. The first of its kind in decades, the proposed changes include making it more difficult for foreign claimants to plead their cases in England and Wales, better protecting academics and authors who lack big media group backing, and preventing websites from being sued repeatedly for publications in question.
The question lies in whether the draft bill goes far enough. Critics claim that the actual differences between the exisiting laws and those proposed are minimal and that this action is only a matter of changing common law practice into statute. Others worry that the document in no way addresses the absurd costs of libel suits, which are often many times more than the actual amount of compensation being claimed.
The other major issue is that many of the problems are not solely defamation based. The over-usage of the legal system to claim damages is a systemic dilemma. No-win, no-fee solicitors have intensified the problem by giving potential claimants a risk-free way to sue, at least until they win, when they are forced to give the great majority of their winnings to their solicitor. Addressing defamation alone will not fix this.
It’s in nearly everyone’s interests that libel law is significantly reformed in England. Not only do the cases raise insurance costs across many professions, but the simple fact is that it impedes a person’s willingness to express his or her opinion, even if that opinion is in the public’s interest. The draft defamation bill is the perfect opportunity to get this right once and for all. Let’s just hope this is enough for a start.