Law Review: UK lawmakers delay reform of tough libel laws

Hat Tip to @JackofKent for reminding us of this tweet by Tom Watson MP – ironic.  Before he instructed Carter-Ruck?

Also this tweet by Beau Bo D’Or..he’s right.  Important to get the story right!

Julie Kirkbride MP ( reported by Guido Fawkes as being one of those involved in blocking libel reform…) is a Tory… at least I assume she hasn’t lost the Tory whip since I looked at her website a minute ago.

Associated Press is reporting that “Freedom of speech campaigners accused British lawmakers Tuesday of blocking attempts to reform the country’s notoriously tough libel laws. A committee of House of Commons legislators voted to delay proposed changes to current laws, which would sharply cut fees charged to both defendants and complainants by lawyers representing them in libel cases.”

But opponents — including some lawmakers on a committee scrutinizing the planned legislation — said more consultation, and a full Parliamentary vote, is needed before any changes can be passed.

“The feeling was that the impact would be that lawyers wouldn’t touch difficult cases any more,” said Labour Party legislator Chris Mullin, who voted against immediately passing the laws in a vote of a legislative committee.

Libel reform campaigner Jonathan Heawood, of human rights charity English PEN, said the decision was surprising. “It’s hard to understand why anyone would stand in the way of these reforms on costs,” he said.

Guido Fawkes picked up on this late last night, warning that details were, at that stage, sketchy:

“Details are a little sketchy tonight, but Guido understands that there has been a last minute ambush of Jack Straw’s libel reform bill in the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments.

The ambush was apparently galvanised by Tom Watson, with the support of Chris Mullins, Peter Kilfoyle, Jim Sheridan and Julie Kirkbride.

It seems inexplicable, the reform carries widespread support across all parties. Cynics note that some of last minute opponents had in the past benefitted from Conditional Fee Arrangements (CFAs). Others point to the closeness to former speaker Michael Martin, who opposes the reforms in the Lords. Others note that some of the opponents have themselves been beneficiaries of CFAs . Solicitors Carter-Ruck are lobbying intensely against to keep the no-win-no-fee system. Carter-Ruck won £50,000 for Tom Watson on that basis. Coincidentally.

Guido Fawkes

Not surprisingly, the news provoked reaction on Twitter – most of it surprised. Tom Watson MP came on to twitter to say that he would explain more in due course.

@Tom_Watson: Friends, voting on the Budget until early hours. Promise to give you a detailed reason why the proposed libel reforms were floored tomorrow

It would be rather unfortunate if the reason lawyers won’t touch libel cases anymore is the fact that libel lawyers can charge £1000 per hour (possibly more?)  whereas criminal law barristers are only getting £60 p.h as was suggested on Twitter last night… surely not?  A number of people on Twitter are asking Mr Watson why he blocked the libel reform.  His explanation better be credible, for otherwise, I suspect that he will be subject to a fair bit of comment. Libel reform is an issue which many wish to see followed through.

3 thoughts on “Law Review: UK lawmakers delay reform of tough libel laws

  1. This wasn’t a delay to “reform of libel laws” – the delay was to an ill thought out rushed partial measure aimed at currying favour with the media in advance of the General Election (the kind of thing which usually you would have seen through in a flash). The proposal managed to generate a broad front of opposition – taking in everyone who actually knows how CFAs work. The barristers for Simon Singh are on CFAs as were Henrik Thomsen’s solicitors. In general CFAs help the poor take on the rich – which is why the large media corporations hate them so much.

  2. Richard – you make a fair point but our libel law structure does inhibit free speech and comment – the financing of the matter isn’t really the only problem – it is the law of libel itself which needs to be addressed and re-defined. Also the issue of superinjunctions.

  3. Correct me if I’m wrong, but: according to my understanding UK libel law currently has two interesting features:

    * the loser is usually ordered to pay the winner’s costs

    * the winner may enter into a “no win-no fee agreement” with his lawyer.

    Either of these ideas, on its own, may be supportable. But combined they are a nonsense. If a lawyer (call him Carter-Ruck) enters into a no-win no-fee agreement with a client (call him Trafigura), AND can also rely on an award of costs if he wins, then he has absolutely no incentive to keep his fee within reasonable bounds. Heck, he can set his fee to the entire GDP of Great Britain! For there are two possibilities:

    * Carter-Ruck wins (in which case his fee is paid by the loser, not by his own client

    * Carter-Ruck loses (in which case his fee is not paid in any case)

    Thus Carter-Ruck will set his fee to the absolute maximum that the judge will allow.

    At a minimum, libel reform MUST insist that there can be no award of costs if the winner’s lawyer has entered into a no-win no-fee agreement.

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