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BCA drop libel case against Simon Singh

On April 15th The British Chiropractic Association dropped its libel case with science writer Simon Singh. This followed the Court of Appeal ruling on 1st April that Singh’s article on chiropractic was comment not fact.  

Simon Singh has been fighting his case for two years and has spent more than 200,000 pounds. He will never recover all his costs. He said: “It still staggers me that the British Chiropractic Association and half the chiropractors in the UK were making unsubstantiated claims. It still baffles me that the BCA then dared to sue me for libel and put me through two years of hell before I was vindicated.  And it still makes me angry that our libel laws not only tolerate but also encourage such ludicrous libel suits. English libel law is so intimidating, so expensive, so hostile to serious journalists that it has a chilling effect on all areas of debate, silencing scientists, journalists, bloggers, human rights activists and everyone else who dares to tackle serious matters of public interest. In the area of medicine alone, fear of libel means that good research is not always published because those with vested interests might sue, and bad research that should be withdrawn is not pulled because the authors might sue the journal, and in both cases it is the public that loses out because the truth is never exposed. My victory does not mean that our libel laws are okay, because I won despite the libel laws - we still have the most notoriously anti-free speech libel laws in the free world.”

Tracey Brown, Sense About Science, said: “Perversely, the BCA have proved an important point by bringing this case - that we need a public interest defence that can protect discussions of evidence and research, and many other types of discussion. At the moment we have laws that do the opposite. Cases brought under the current law, including the action that is still ongoing against the cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst, are taking important debates away from the public and into the courtroom. That is why Simon and his supporters, the Libel Reform Campaign and members of the legal profession, commentators etc will continue to press for the manifesto commitments now secured with all the major parties are turned into serious reform.”

Singh’s solicitor Robert Dougans, Associate at Bryan Cave LLP, said: “The BCA has now served a Notice of Discontinuance upon us. This brings to an end their libel claim against Simon. All that now remains to be settled is how much of Simon’s legal costs he can recover from the BCA, and how much he will have to bear himself. However well this process goes, Simon is likely to be out of pocket by about 20,000 pounds. This - and two years of lost earnings, which he can never recover - is the price he has paid for writing an article criticising the BCA for making claims the Advertising Standards Agency has ruled can no longer be made. In the game of libel, even winning is costly and stressful. To have won this case for Simon is the proudest moment of my career, but if we had the libel laws we ought to have I would never have met Simon at all. Until we have a proper public interest defence scientists and writers are going to have to carry on making the unenviable choice of either shying away from hard-hitting debate, or paying through the nose for the privilege of defending it.”

Jonathan Heawood, English PEN, said: “The appeal judges described the Singh trial as ‘a surprising consequence of laws designed to protect reputation’. Libel law is simply not fit for purpose. The question is not whether to reform the law, but when.”

John Kampfner, CEO of Index on Censorship said: “We welcome the BCA’s decision to abandon this case, but this has cost Simon over 200,000 pounds. Any reforms will have to ensure that a case like Simon’s never happens again. We will maintain pressure on the major parties to keep their manifesto pledges and reform our archaic, unfair libel laws.”

Liberal Democrat Dr Evan Harris said: “Dr Singh’s case underlines the need to radically change the law, to save science writers and responsible journalists from having to spend two years of their life and 200,000 pounds of their savings defending their right to debate matters of public interest, including children’s health.”

Dr. Michael Collis, Chief Executive, The Physiological Society said: “It’s great news that the libel case against science writer Simon Singh has been dropped. Freedom to criticise and question is the cornerstone of scientific debate. The Physiological Society is a strong supporter of the movement to reform the current UK libel laws which can deter scientists from expressing their views and acting in the public interest.”

Professor Julia Buckingham, Chairman of the Society for Endocrinology, said: “The Society for Endocrinology welcomes the news that the libel case against the science writer Simon Singh has been dropped.  In order for scientific debate to move forward, scientists and clinicians need to be able to openly discuss and debate findings without fear of being prosecuted for voicing an opinion.  It is essential that England’s libel laws are reformed to allow this process of scientific peer review to take place.  Debate amongst researchers helps to advance not only our understanding of scientific issues, but also leads to real improvements in public health and patient care.”

Simon Singh:“The good news is that all three main parties this week committed to a libel reform bill in the next Parliament. But libel reform has to be radical. Cutting costs by a half means that a trial will not cost 1 million pounds but cost 500,000 pounds, but this is still extortionate. Costs need to be cut by a factor of 10 at least. Moreover the current libel law still means that libel tourists can sue in London on spurious grounds, big companies can still bully lone journalists, we still lack a robust public interest defence and we still have an unfair burden of proof on writers. It is important to remember that another libel case involving medicine continues - Dr Peter Wilmshurst is a consultant cardiologist who is being sued for libel for raising serious concerns about the data relating to a new heart device. If Dr Wilmshurst loses his case then he will be bankrupted. It is ridiculous that a respected researcher such as Dr Wilmshurst, someone who has devoted his life to medicine, should be put under such pressure just for speaking his mind. Our libel laws discourage doctors, scientists and journalists from speaking out. It is only when Peter has hopefully defended his libel case that I will be able to celebrate. It is only when English libel law has been reformed that I will be able enjoy today’s victory. Unless our libel laws change urgently and radically, I will not be the last journalist hauled through the libel courts and who will have to face financial disaster and two years of hell simply for raising an important and valid matter of public interest.”

Simon Singh:“One of the good things to come out of the last two years is that the chiropractic profession has been put under intense scrutiny. One in four chiropractors in the UK is now being investigated for making allegedly misleading claims, the Advertising Standards Authority has ruled against many chiropractic claims and the British Chiropractic Association has removed many claims from its website. None of this would have happened if I had backed down and the BCA has successfully silenced my article.”

Simon Singh:“The case is not quite over, because we still have to argue over costs. Having backed down and dropped the case, I expect the British Chiropractic Association to pay my legal bill of 200,000 pounds. I fully expect the BCA to argue that they should not pay all my costs, but I think it is the very least that they should do because this entire legal battle has been instigated by the BCA. I will never get back the two years that I have wasted on this case when I should have been writing a new book and I will never get back all the time I should have had with friends and family, which instead was replaced with continual stress, anxiety and ridiculously tedious legal documents. Fortunately the case has ended when my son Hari is only three weeks old, so I can now relax and enjoy being a father. My wife is a journalist and she been fully supportive throughout, and without her backing and the support of family, friends, scientists, bloggers and many others I suspect I would not have had the morale to keep fighting this case until the end.”

More coverage:

The Guardian A pivotal moment for free speech in Britain

The Guardian Simon Singh victory doesn’t mean libel laws work

Times Online Science writer Simon Singh wins bitter libel battle

BBC News Case dropped against Simon Singh

The Guardian Simon Singh libel case dropped

The Independent British Chiropractic Association drops defamation claim against Simon Singh

The Mail Online Doctor who criticised British Chiropractic Association jubilant as defamation case is dropped

The Today Program Libel cases ‘crazy’

Times Higher Education Singh triumphant

New Statesman Simon Singh wins libel case BCA speaks - why the ‘time is right’ to drop libel case against Simon Singh

Guardian online Libel laws: a lethal muzzle of medicine

Guardian online election 2010 How many libel cases are there?

New Scientist Simon Singh wins libel battle against chiropractors

Index on Censorship Simon Singhs wins libel case

Nature Blog BCA backs off Singh

Press Gazette Chiropractic Association drops Simon Singh libel claim

The Spectator A rare victory for free speech

Reuters UK Chiropractors drop science writer libel case

The Wall Street Journal U.K. Writer Wins Libel Fight

The Lawyer British Chiropractic Association drops Singh libel case

Macleans Bittersweet justice for Singh

TopNews United States Bitter Libel Fight Won by Science Writer Simon Singh