Libel Working Group report published

Reforms proposed for internet publication, public interest publications and 'libel tourism'

The Libel Working Group, which was established by the Ministry of Justice in January to consider reforms to the law of libel, has published its report

The Working Group‘s mandate was to consider whether the law of libel needs reform and if so to make recommendations as to solutions. The report addresses a number of key areas, including libel tourism, the role of public interest considerations in establishing a defence to a libel action, the multiple publication rule and procedural and case management issues relating to the conduct of libel litigation. The report gives an indication of the varying views that exist on these topics and identifies options for action.

On the issue of libel tourism the Group recommended a number of options be explored including:(i) giving the defendant an option to attend the initial hearing of the application for permission to serve a claim out of the jurisdiction; (ii) elevating consideration of the application to judge level and (iii) amending the Pre-Action Protocol to require claimants to identify the extent of publication both in this jurisdiction and elsewhere, and why England and Wales is the proper place to bring the claim.

The majority of the Working Group also considered that a single publication rule should be introduced in circumstances where the republication of allegedly defamatory material is by the same publisher.  The Working Group did however fail to reach a consensus whether such a rule should be introduced in respect of republication of the material by different publishers.

It was further recommended that the Ministry of Justice undertake further work on a statutory public interest defence with “a view to exploring how and whether it is possible to reconcile the competing interests in relation to reputation and the right to freedom of expression in a way which clarifies Reynolds in light of Jameel.”

Following the publication of the report Justice Secretary Jack Straw has announced that reforms of the law on libel, build on the proposals recommended by the Working Group, will be taken forward in the next Parliament, including:

  • “the current multiple publication rule will be replaced with a ‘single publication rule.’ This will ensure that claimants in libel proceedings cannot bring a case against every publication or download of a story repeating the same claims”
  • “Consideration will be given to a statutory defence to protect publications that are in the public interest”
  • “the Government will also move to prevent the growth of ‘libel tourism’ – when foreign claimants use English courts to make libel claims against foreign publications outside the EU which can be accessed in the UK. This will include asking the Civil Procedure Rule Committee to consider tightening the rules where the court’s permission is required to serve defamation cases outside England and Wales.”

‘s Desmond Browne QC was a member of the Working Group.