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Libel reform announced in Queen’s Speech to Parliament

Update 11th May 2012

The Government has published the Defamation Bill. Read it here.

9th May 2012

The Government will introduce a law "to protect freedom of speech and reform the law of defamation”.

The libel reform campaign, nearly 100 organisations and our 60,000 supporters including leading names from science, the arts and public life have been calling for legislation to reform the libel laws since December 2009. Congratulations to all on this momentous stage.

Now we need to see the details of the Bill and will work to ensure the reforms will do away with unwarranted chilling, bullying effects of the current laws.

See responses to this great news below. We will be updating comments as they come in so keep checking back. Or you can follow on Twitter #libelreform.

Over the coming months, the Libel Reform Campaign will continue to fight for:

  • a public interest defence so people can defend themselves unless the claimant can show they have been malicious or reckless.
  • a strong test of harm that strikes out claims unless the claimant can demonstrate serious and substantial harm and they have a real prospect of vindication.
  • a restriction on corporations’ ability to use the libel laws to silence criticism.
  • provisions for online hosts and intermediaries, who are not authors nor traditional publishers.

Jonathan Heawood, Director, English PEN: “Over the past three years, the Libel Reform Campaign has shown how our unfair libel laws are causing legitimate books to be pulped and publishers to engage in unnecessary self-censorship. The Government has responded to the public demand for change, and we welcome this long-overdue chance for reform. It must now ensure that the protections for free speech are as robust as possible. This means strengthening its current proposals on public interest reporting, and also reforming the procedures that judges use to apply the law.”

Tracey Brown, Managing Director, Sense About Science: “We and thousands of others have campaigned to stop the libel laws’ bullying and chilling effects on discussions about health, scientific research, consumer safety, history and human rights. We are really pleased to see the Government has moved closer to honouring its promise of a fairer law and protection of free speech in today’s Queen’s Speech. This opens the way to developing a law guided by public interest not powerful interests.”

Kirsty Hughes, Chief Executive, Index on Censorship: “Finally, the government is to stop libel tourism so wealthy foreign claimants can no longer use our High Court to silence their critics abroad. The 60,000 people who signed the Libel Reform Campaign will be delighted that the government has announced this reform, though we’ll be awaiting the detail.”

Simon Singh, defendant in British Chiropractic Association v Singh: “I continue to be contacted by journalists, scientists and others who are being silenced by libel threats or libel claims. The reform promised in the Queen’s speech today is a welcome response to the intolerable effects of the current laws. I hope that the Government will now move rapidly to bring forward a bill that protects those writing about serious matters in the public interest.”

Dr Evan Harris, Policy Advisor, Libel Reform Campaign: "Getting the Bill in the Queen’s Speech is a very welcome step. The key issue is not a Bill or even an Act but the right reforms. There’s still some way to go on that."

Jo Glanville, Editor, Index on Censorship: “We now have a chance for libel legislation that’s fit for the 21st century. The end of the single publication rule and greater protection for internet service providers will help to put an end to the chilling effect online.”

Dara O Briain ‏ @daraobriain: "Congratulations to all involved in #libelreform campaign for getting into the Queen's speech. Fantastic news after huge effort..."

Ben Goldacre ‏ @bengoldacre: "The Queen's speech! "Legislation will be introduced to protect freedom of speech and reform the law of defamation." Air punch! #LibelReform"

"Thanks to everyone who put #libelreform on the political dinner plate in muscular fashion and supported campaign over three years. U rule."

Dave Gorman @DaveGorman: "So #LibelReform was in the Queen's speech! Fantastic news! Huge congratulations to all those involved in 3years of campaigning."

Dr Christian Jessen @DoctorChristian: "Wonderful encouraging news that #libelreform was in the queens speech to parliament. Big congrats to @SLSingh and all involved in the fight."

David Allen Green: "The test of libel reform is simple: will mere legal threats, or the worry of threats, mean that things are not published or broadcast which otherwise would be in the public interest to put into the public domain?  The objective of libel reform is to remove this 'libel chill'.  The announcement in the Queen's Speech is wonderful, but there is work ahead on getting the best defamation legislation we can." 

Mumsnet ‏ @MumsnetTowers: "Big 'woop' moment innit. Still long way to go, but great news. #libelreform"

Rowan Davies ‏ @rowandavies: "#libelreform campaign has been absolutely fearsome. It's been a privilege capering around on the edges."

Justine Roberts, co-founder and CEO, Mumsnet: “While the draft Defamation Bill was a very good start, it didn’t go far enough to protect freedom of expression, particularly in the online environment. Websites and hosts of user-generated comment risk becoming tactical targets for those who wish to clamp down on criticism or investigation of their activities.”

Richard Dunstan, Social Policy Officer, Citizens Advice: “Whilst inclusion of a Libel Reform Bill is clearly good news, the Bill must provide for a clear and effective public interest defence for third sector organisations, such as Citizens Advice, trying to shine a spotlight on corporate practices that are unfair, detrimental to the public interest, or even unlawful. Just today, we await a landmark ruling in a case that would never have reached a judge had we been silenced - as we very nearly were - by unscrupulous threats of a libel action.”

Bob Satchwell, Executive Director, Society of Editors: “Those who have campaigned so hard for libel reform deserve praise for fighting on behalf of ordinary people, scientists, academics, and authors as well as the media. The pressure must be maintained to achieve sensible and just reforms to bring the law into the 21st century, repealing legislation that was originally designed to protect the rich and powerful in Victorian times.”

Society of Authors @Soc_of_Authors: Thanks to @IndexCensorship @englishpen @senseaboutsci there will libel reform. Sign the petition to keepup the pressure

Global Witness @Global_Witness Great news! Defamation Bill in Queen's Speech. Big step forward for public interest reporting. Lots of work still to do  

Philip Campbell PhD, Editor-in-Chief, Nature: “It is essential to the public trust in science that scientific integrity is upheld and that bad behaviour is brought to light. It is therefore imperative that libel legislation be revised to achieve a better balance of interests between those accused of misconduct and those who should be better able to write about them.”

Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge: "It is fantastic that all the hard work from so many people has paid off! Having served on the Draft Bill Committee, I very much looking forward to passing a Bill that is even better than the draft, removing the chilling effect of our current too-expensive system. I also welcome the government's commitment to specific protection for peer-reviewed publications."

Secretary Welcome forthcoming bill to modernise our outdated defamation laws, building on Labour’s groundwork. Look forward to working with and in coming months

Paul Farrelly, MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme: “With all the other pressing priorities for legislative time, it’s fantastic to find the libel reform bill seeing the clear light of day, after all the efforts so far. The challenge now is get our laws changed, finally, to protect responsible investigative journalism and scientific enquiry, as well as safeguarding ordinary people’s access to justice. I look forward to playing my part in securing these much-needed reforms.”

Hardeep Singh, journalist and libel defendant: "The inclusion of the defamation bill in the Queen's Speech marks a major milestone for The Libel Reform Campaign. It can't be right that ordinary people risk their livelihoods when getting caught up in costly libel proceedings. The Government has already investigated ways to weed out unmeritorious claims, whereby claimants will have to show serious harm before a case progresses. If passed by Parliament, these types of amendments will not only make our libel laws fairer, but go some way in restoring London's reputation from being a 'town called sue.' " 

Dr Peter Wilmshurst who was sued by medical device company NMT Medical: “Patients have suffered because the draconian defamation laws were used to silence doctors with legitimate concerns about medical safety. ... It is hypocritical for parliamentarians to expect ordinary citizens to speak out on matters of public interest and safety, when they do not allow ordinary citizens the same protection that MPs reserve for themselves to protect them from misuse of the defamation law.”

Rachel Ehrenfeld, Ph.D., author of Funding Evil; How Terrorism is Financed- and How to Stop It, is director of NY based American Center for Democracy: “An American citizen I set out in New York to defend myself from Britain's draconian and antiquated libel tourism law and succeeded. New York State was first to passed the Anti-Libel Terrorism Law" (AKA "Rachel's Law") in May 2008. The Federal SPEECH Act, protecting all Americans writers and publishers in print and on the internet followed in August 2010. I am delighted that my actions in the US spurred the free speech reform movement in the UK to fight for and hopefully soon achieve a long overdue reform of their libel law.”

Till Sommer, Internet Service Providers Association: “ISPA welcomes the Government’s commitment to libel reform. The current regulatory framework has failed to provide clarity to hosting and Internet service providers and has ultimately has had a chilling effect on freedom of speech online. We hope that Parliament will address the current shortcomings in the upcoming session and we will follow the political process closely to ensure that the reforms strike the best possible compromise between protecting providers, claimants and authors.”

Nick Ross, journalist and broadcaster: "It’s brilliant news. We now have the pledge of a new statutory defence of responsible publication on matters of public interest. Congratulations to everyone on a superb campaign. But let’s not relax until we see the devil in the detail, specifically that the threat of libel proceedings can never again be used to frustrate robust scientific and academic debate, or to impede responsible investigative journalism."

Professor Ashley Grossman, President of the Society for Endocrinology: “The Society for Endocrinology welcomes the announcement in the Queen’s Speech that the Government will be reforming the current libel laws and protecting freedom of speech. It is essential that clinicians and researchers are able to openly discuss and debate new scientific findings, and in particular new clinical research, without fear of prosecution. Through questioning and examining new research in detail, we can advance our understanding of scientific issues and bring improvements to public health and patient care. It is now imperative that Libel Reform Campaign partners keep up the hard work to ensure this new Bill is fit for purpose and meets the needs of all parties involved.”

Antony Lempert @Seculant: "Great to see #libelreform in #QueensSpeech Medical research must not be a hostage to wealthy vested interests"

Richard Smith @drawingbusiness: "As soon as the #libelreform changes are passed into law, it'll be time to get our best evidence-based criticism hats on. #tallyho#skeptics"

Mark Miodownik @markmiodownik: "Important moment as science flexes political muscle, great leadership from @SLSingh #LibelReform in the Queen's Speech"

The Defamation Bill made it into the Queen's Speech. Now we need to make sure it is the real and substantial reform we need.

Terrific that   is in Queen's Speech. This wouldn't have happened without the geek activism that followed libel case.

a deep and heartfelt hurray for   bill. Existing situation a travesty

Great news - could this be the beginning of the end for libel tourism?  


Recent commentary:

Independent, New Bill will reform libel laws

Guardian, Libel bill is good news for all who believe in free expression

Daily Mail, New defamation bill ‘will put a stop to libel tourism’ by shaking up old law

Telegraph, Queen's Speech 2012: the winners and losers

BBC News New Defamation Bill 'to protect freedom of speech

Times Higher Education, Queen’s Speech signals libel law ‘guided by public interest, not powerful interests’

 Economist Libel reform: Tourists go home

BMJ, Queen’s Speech promises libel reform and bill on adult social care

Nature English libel reform to bring peer-review protection

 Huffington Post Ken Clarke Publishes Defamation Bill To Reform Libel Laws Following Queen's Speech

Press Gazette, Libel reform included in Queen's Speech

The Bookseller, Libel reform included in Queen's Speech

Royal Society of Chemistry Campaigners win fight to reform UK libel laws

Tracey Brown, BMJ,  A defamation bill in the Queen’s speech

Kirsty Hughes, Huffington Post, Boost to Freedom of Expression in the UK - London Set to Lose Its Label as Global Capital for Libel Tourism?

Mark Henderson, The Geek Manifesto, Geek questions for the Queen’s Speech: Libel reform

Simon Singh, Guardian, How to make a truly fair libel law