Writers ranging from celebrities to journalists to bloggers to academics are calling for a reform of the English libel laws.
The 200 year old laws, cover slander (spoken defamation) and libel (written defamation) have come under fire from the Libel Reform Campaign (LRC).
The LRC claim the current laws are outdated, stating the law “was designed to serve the rich and powerful, and does not reflect the interests of a modern democratic society”.
A report has been produced by the English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science titled “Free Speech Is Not For Sale”.
The report outlines ten concerns within the current laws, including the rising cost of legal charges and the impact on free speech.
Often praised and criticised for allowing the full anonymity of its users, the internet also raises concern. A user of an independent Sheffield Wednesday supporter’s website posted the comment “[w]hat an embarrassing, pathetic, laughing stock of a football club we’ve become”, Sheffield Wednesday FC took action against both the owner and the users involved in the “derogatory” comments.
In another case with the same website, the football club took action against another supporter, Nigel Short – although the club did eventually back down and paid his legal costs, Mr Short “suffered two years of legal wrangling, during which time he lived in fear of bankruptcy”, according to the LRC report.
Another concern is how the law allows for and arguably encourages overseas writers to be sued in London. Providing a copy of a “defamatory” piece was sold or accessed in England, the author is subject to English law. This again, is increasing as the internet becomes more accessible.
Guardian columnist Ben Goldacre criticised the misleading advertising strategies of a vitamin pill manufacturer and its founder Dr Matthias Rath, who denounced HIV/AIDS drugs as ineffective while promoting their own products. Goldacre was then sued for libel.
While the case was dropped a year later, the Guardian’s legal fees had amounted to over £500,000 – and although the paper was awarded costs of £200,000, the Libel Reform Campaign argues “there can be little doubt that the case was brought by Rath in an attempt to prevent journalists questioning his business activities”.
In a blog entry about the LRC, Mr Goldacre quotes comedian Alexei Sayle, whose fees had amounted to over £100,000 in another case. “[I]t would have been cheaper”, he explained, “if I’d just stabbed the f*cker”.
The LRC suggests capping these fees – Justice Secretary Jack Straw has proposed to cut the amount charged by lawyers on such cases by 90 percent.
Mr Straw said that while “lawyers need to recover their costs and be rewarded for their efforts and the risks they undertake when … in “no win, no fee” cases … evidence suggests that the regular doubling of fees that currently takes place is simply not justified and the balance of costs between claimant and defendant needs to be reconsidered.”