UK libel laws need to be reformed


The UK’s reputation as a financial epicentre may have taken a battering, but it still attracts clients the world over in one area: libel law. Anyone across the globe can bring about a libel case in England if they can prove that just one copy of a publication containing ‘defamatory’ remarks about them has been purchased or downloaded on English soil.

Our system is incredibly claimant friendly. A defendant must prove that what they reported was either true or fair in order to win. Unlike in countries such as the USA, little respect for diversity of opinion and free speech is enshrined in the legal process. Also, defending libel action in England costs 140 times more than the average of other European countries.

These flaws bring about several problems. “Libel tourism" is rife; rich foreigners exploit UK law to try and silence unpleasant allegations made against them that would be thrown out of court in their own country. This has lead to foreign publishers becoming wary of circulating in the UK. Large American newspapers such as the New York Times told a Commons Select Committee that they are considering pulling out of the UK market as the threat of billion dollar court cases being brought against them simply isn’t worth it.

The high costs of defending libel lawsuits mean that too often those brought to court simply settle instead of fighting. It also leads to a dramatic clampdown on investigative reporting within the UK, as journalists are so incredibly wary of libel action. Journalists and Scientists in England are not forcibly censored, but they are self-censored; it is difficult to tell how many reports never make the light of day for fear of the potentially ruinous legal implications. Super-injunctions and over-zealous interpretations of the HRA’s Right to Privacy often mean the English public do not even know that something has been covered up.

Index on Censorship and English PEN have released a report on this issue, suggesting a number of reforms to libel law. These include bringing about a £10,000 cap on damages paid out, and ensuring at least 10% of a publication’s circulation is in England before libel charges can be brought about. A select committee is also due to be reporting their findings into the effect of libel law shortly.

At present English libel laws are used by the rich and influential to deflect attention, while discouraging serious journalism and the spread of ideas to the UK. These laws are in desperate need of reform so that they actually serve their intended purpose.