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Opinions divided over libel Bill

1 June 2010

Lord Lester’s defamation Bill introduced last week promises to “reduce the chilling effect on freedom of expression and recourse to self-censorship that results from the vagueness and uncertainty of the present law”.

The move has been welcomed by lawyers and organisations pressing for a change in the law. Robert Dougans, for instance, the solicitor advocate at Bryan Cave who acted for Simon Singh in his recent case against the British Chiropractic Association, said the Bill “followed on from the Singh decision in expanding and enhancing the defence of honest opinion”.

“Attempts by the courts and Parliament to reform the libel laws have just added layers of complexity, to the extent that only specialist lawyers are able to advise upon it,” he continued.

But not all lawyers support putting libel rules on a statutory footing. Getting legislation through Parliament may not be so easy, even though all three main parties had manifesto commitments to review libel laws. An early day motion, tabled on 9 December last year, has only been signed by 249 MPs.

This relative lack of interest on the part of elected representatives could well reflect the low priority of the issue among the electorate.

“I don’t get the impression that the world and his wife are banging their fists on the windows because there’s been no change to the libel laws,” says Rod Dadak, leading defamation specialist at Lewis Silkin and Solicitors Journal regular.

Dadak also rejects the suggestion that current laws are unclear and have had a chilling effect.

The Singh case has achieved most of what the Bill puts forward, he says, and the fair comment defence is now “pretty tight – provided you actually believe that what you say is fair comment”.

“It is to the law’s credit that there has been this in-built flexibility for the courts to develop the law,” he says. “The present law isn’t vague and uncertain; this Bill is in that it seeks to replace what it calls archaic with something woolly.”

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