New Defamation Act to end “chilling effect” of libel tourism

New Year, new protections!  New legislation takes effect today which will give better protection to those who join in the debate online.

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The government said the Defamation Act 2013 would reverse the “chilling effect” current libel laws have had on freedom of expression and legitimate debate.  There will be new protections for those expressing their opinions online and better safeguards for free speech.

The changes will also better protect website users and end “libel tourism”.

Journalists, scientists and academics have faced unfair legal threats for fairly criticising a company, person or product in the past, the Ministry of Justice said.

It said the Act would provide “clearer, better protection for people publicly expressing opinions”, while campaigners said it was “good news for free speech”.

The Defamation Act 2013 will see a number of changes:

  • A new process to resolve alleged online defamation outside of the courts
  • A new “serious harm threshold” to discourage frivolous claims
  • Protection for those publishing material on a matter of public interest
  • Single-publication rule to prevent repeated claims against a publisher about the same material
  • Better protection for website operators

Justice minister Shailesh Vara said:

As a result of these new laws, anyone expressing views and engaging in public debate can do so in the knowledge that the law offers them stronger protection against unjust and unfair threats of legal action.

It will be more difficult for companies to sue for libel as they now have to show they have suffered or are likely to suffer serious harm. That is designed to protect journalists or scientists who write about products or services in the public interest.

There is also more protection from libel for those running websites with a new separation of “author” and “publisher”.

In addition to the 2013 Act the attorney general announced last month he will publish new guidance on social media.

Dominic Grieve QC said he wants to help prevent social media users from inadvertently committing contempt of court following celebrity tweets during a recent rape case.

The new law makes the distinction much clearer between expressions of opinion and fair reporting from actual libel - and will make it harder for vested interests to claim "internet bullying" as a defence to comments online that are clearly in the public interest.  The new guidelines, meanwhile, will warn social media users they could be prosecuted for contempt under existing laws if they prejudice a trial.

The UK is ranked 29th in Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 World Press Freedom Index.

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