Defamation law reform becoming ever more likely


With the Queen’s Speech approaching in early May, speculation has started on the new laws that it might contain. One area that is likely to receive attention is the reform of England’s ancient libel laws. Debate has raged for years on this subject with proponents of reform arguing that as it currently stands libel deeply damages free speech, whilst its defenders say that that it serves as a vital defence against false accusations.

Reforming agenda

In its response to consultation on the Defamation Bill in March this year, the Government confirmed its commitment to law reform and the Bill is widely expected to be in next year’s legislative programme. If it is passed, it will represent the most radical overhaul of libel law for centuries. Gone will be the right to a jury trial - future cases will be heard by a judge sitting alone. ‘Honest opinion’ will be a defence to a statement, rather than the current requirement of proving ‘fair comment.’ Claimants will also be expected to justify their claim from the outset by showing that they have suffered significant harm, so the trivial and vexatious actions will no longer plague the courts.

High costs

Significantly, it is unlikely that the Defamation Bill will deal directly with costs, in spite of the controversy surrounding the issue.  At present, the increasing availability of Conditional Fee Arrangements, in which almost all the costs are only paid on success, has in many cases reduced the claimants’ risk to only a couple of thousand pounds to get the action started.

However, when the costs are eventually paid at the end of a successful case they can easily reach six figures, often dwarfing the compensation actually awarded. It has been suggested that the risk of these high costs has had a ‘chilling effect’ on journalism, with media outlets being unwilling to risk publishing provocative statements even when it is in the public interest.

Other Reforms

The Government is, however, pursuing a general reform of legal costs in all civil litigation and has said that, despite its unique features, it does not believe that defamation law deserves to be treated differently to other areas. This is still under review however, and it would not be surprising for the final draft to include provisions extending the power for judges to cap costs or refuse to allow success fees to be added to costs awards.

The passage of the Bill will be watched carefully by defamation lawyers and litigants alike.

What our clients say about us
"I'm very happy with the service you have provided and with Caven. I have already recommended your website to my friends."

Carolina, Employment law, London, Aug 12
"Thank you so much for your recommendation. The solicitor suggested really interesting alternatives, and gave me moral support. I'm so glad I came across your website."

LR, Kingston, Nov 10
"We engaged the solicitor's services and everything has been fantastic. It was such a relief...I wish I had called you earlier and saved myself hours of calls!"

Jaye, Civil litigation, N. Yorks, Feb 13
"Having accepted referrals for several years through Caven, I have been most impressed by the quality of their leads and their professional approach."

AE, Manchester Solicitors, July 09
"I was offered unbiased and honest opinions from the firm you put me in touch with. I felt unpressured and this took a weight off my mind."

KS, Employment law, Oxford, July 12
"Caven's solicitors were fantastic and won me the compensation I was hoping for following my accident."

Tom F, PI, Edinburgh, March 09
"Sincere thanks for making things a lot easier for me and my family. When I contacted you initially I really didn't know where to start and was terrified by what costs might be involved."

TC, London, March 11
"Your service was very quick, easy to use and I got legal advice in a language I could understand. Superb service!"

RC, Bristol, July 11
"Initially I was sceptical about asking a question online (never having done that before) but would do it again and would recommend others do the same."

Pete Chambers, Feb 12
"Without Caven I wouldn't be here right now. Excellent customer service, and representation from the firm, and now I have my Resident Card. Thank you!"

Farah Hawk, Immigration, Oct 12
Brands we work with
Guardian Unlimited logo
Guardian Unlimited logoThis is logo