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Lord Lester "in heaven" after promise of draft Defamation Bill

12 July 2010

Liberal Democrat peer Lord Lester said he did not know whether he was alive or already “in heaven” after the government agreed to publish a draft Defamation Bill early next year.

Justice minister Lord McNally told the House of Lords last week that, following the second reading of Lord Lester’s private member’s bill to reform libel law, the government would embark on a “wide range of consultations” on reform over the summer.

“When the House returns in the autumn, we will have made considerable progress on a draft government bill, which we hope to publish early in the new year and make ready for pre-legislative scrutiny,” Lord McNally said.

“As I say, this is not a vague promise of better things to come, but a firm commitment to action on this matter. Such a timetable would give us a strong case for making time in the 2011-12 legislative programme for a substantive bill.”

He went on: “We recognise the concerns that have been raised over recent months about the detrimental effects that the current law may be having on freedom of expression, particularly in relation to academic and scientific debate, the work of non-governmental organisations and investigative journalism; and the extent to which this jurisdiction has become a magnet for libel claims.

“These are all matters that have been covered in this debate. In reviewing the law, we want to focus on ensuring that freedom of speech and academic debate are protected and that a fair balance is struck between freedom of expression and the protection of reputation.”

Lord Lester responded: “When I hear my noble friend Lord McNally speak as he did now, I wonder whether I am alive at all or whether I am in heaven.

“I never thought to hear such a reply. His remarks are extremely encouraging because they indicate an open-mindedness to reform, a willingness to get on and to listen.”

However, former law lord Lord Hoffmann warned against “precipitate haste”.

He said that an American campaign, conducted under the banner of “libel tourism”, was actually about Americans being sued by anybody abroad, whether nationals or tourists.

“Whether libel tourism properly so called – that is, actions in England brought by people who have no connection with this country – is a serious problem is debatable.”

Lord Hoffmann said he was “slightly puzzled” by the way Lord Lester’s bill took the public interest defence to libel claims, as laid down by the House of Lords in Reynolds and Jameel, and restated it in its own language.

“I am always nervous, speaking as a former judge, about legislative attempts to restate rules of common law,” Lord Hoffmann said.

“They lead to expensive litigation over whether or not Parliament intended to change things. As the Jameel case appeared to be generally welcomed by the press and has been followed by the Canadians, I should have thought that there was a case for leaving well alone.”

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