Publishers Association chief executive Richard Mollet welcomed the publication of the draft Defamation Bill yesterday [15th March], saying the misapplication of libel suits was having a "chilling effect on what is being published".
Included in the draft bill is the introduction of a single publication rule to prevent an action being brought in relation to publication of the same material by the same publisher after a one year limitation period has passed. It also introduces a new statutory defence of responsible publication on matters of public interest, and a statutory defence of truth and of honest opinion, replacing common law defences of justification and fair/honest comment.
The bill also includes the proposal that a statement must have caused substantial harm in order for it to be defamatory.
In his ministerial foreword to the draft bill, justice secretary Kenneth Clark said defamation laws must "strike the right balance–between protection of freedom of speech on the one hand and protection of reputation on the other".
He said: "We are particularly concerned to ensure that the threat of libel proceedings is not used to frustrate robust scientific and academic debate, or to impede responsible investigative journalism and the valuable work undertaken by non-governmental organisations." He added that he wanted to "address the perception that our courts are an attractive forum for libel claimants with little connection to this country".
Mollet said: "The publication of the draft Defamation Bill is extremely welcome. Our libel laws are in urgent need of reform and Government is at last taking steps to address this. The UK has a world-leading book industry, and it is wrong that its output should be indirectly controlled by libel legislation.
"It is alarming that the misapplication of libel suits is having a chilling effect on what is being published, and therefore on what is being read."
A survey undertaken by the PA on its 115 members showed that all those who responded had been forced to modify content or language ahead of publication, with 60% of those who replied having avoided producing books about specific people or companies who have previously sued for libel.
Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said the reforms would "restore a sense of proportion to the law", and added: "We cannot continue to tolerate a culture in which scientists, journalists and bloggers are afraid to tackle issues of public importance for fear of being sued." The draft bill relates to the law in England and Wales only.