In a modern, free, society, freedom of speech is prized as a right but it is a right delicately balanced between the right to freedom of speech and the right of reputation. The civil laws of defamation, embracing libel and slander, are a powerful, blunt and ruthless instrument used by a very small group of specialist lawyers to protect the interests of clients – sometimes reasonably, sometimes to suppress information.
Libel reform is long overdue. In today’s Times, Lord Lester, a Lib-Dem peer and a distinguished lawyer puts a compelling case for libel reform in his draft Bill. The article is a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in this area of law and freedopm of speech.
Lord Lester writes:
On Thursday my Private Member’s Defamation Bill will be published to help the Government to review the law. There will, of course, be professional resistance. Until now, libel law has remained the preserve of a small group of lawyers skilled in its complex rules and procedures. It has been left to judges to fashion the law, in concert with some piecemeal reforms in the 1950s and 1990s that never addressed free speech and could not have anticipated a culture of online publication and debate.
Current English libel law gives robust protection to reputation at the expense of freedom of speech. Its “chilling effect” on what people are prepared to publish has been aggravated by uncertainty about whether defences can be relied upon, and by conditional fee agreements that permit claimants’ lawyers to be unjustly enriched at the expense of writers and publishers. Claimants have been able to pursue claims where publication has caused them no substantial harm, and large corporations have brought actions against NGOs and newspapers without having to prove financial loss.
The government has plans for libel reform. The removal of a ‘chilling weapon’ from the armoury of lawyers whose clients wish to use the law to suppress freedom of speech is long over due. Perhaps the use of superinjunctions could be examined at the same time?
July 7 inquests will examine role of MI5
The Times reports: The activities and knowledge of M15 leading up to the July 7 bombings will be investigated as part of the inquests into the deaths of the 52 victims, the coroner ruled. Lady Justice Hallett said that it was “not too remote” to investigate what was known in the years before the atrocities took place.
“Plots of this kind are not developed over night,” the judge said at the High Court in London.
The scope of the inquests would therefore include the “alleged intelligence failings and the immediate aftermath of the bombings” She also ruled that the inquests into the deaths of the four suicide bombers would be held separately and she would sit without a jury.
I’m with William Hague on this one. It is absolutely right that we examine closely the activities of our security services to ensure that we, as a country, are not complicit in Torture. David Miliband has maintained consistently that we are not. An investigatiuon into this and the activities of M15 more widely should establish the actuality one way or the other.
Replace House of Lords with experts to scrutinise legislation
Reform of the House of Lords is also long overdue. I favour abolition and replacement by a second elected chamber – where members will not receive outdated titles, be paid for their work and have a role in scrutinising (and improving legislation). In the 21st Century, and in a modern democracy, I think it is quaint, but completely absurd, that men and women should wish to be called ‘Lord’ this or ‘Baroness’ that – pretty harmless, but if our second Chamber is just a way of rewarding politicians who have done their bit (often badly, given history) or as a reward for rich businessmen it isn’t really of much value to us as a second chamber.
The Times reports on an idea which may attract many: “A better solution would be to abolish the House of Lords and create a new statutory “commission for executive scrutiny” instead. It would not be a chamber of Parliament. Its members would be appointed, on merit, by an independent appointing body; they would be part-time and paid only a per diem allowance for attendance; there would be, say, 200 of them; there would be a gender, ethnic and party balance; a proportion of non-party members; and a spread of expertise to enable the commission to do its work well. Mandating or whipping would be forbidden.”
City firms welcome survival of the Financial Services Authority
The Times notes: “An almost audible sigh of relief swept through the corridors of banking and regulation departments in City law firms when the new Government jettisoned proposals to scrap the Financial Services Authority (FSA), one of the totems of the new Labour years and a personal creation of Gordon Brown.”
THE GUARDIAN DOES LAW… and it is good.
I am delighted to see that The Guardian has started a new Law section. It is rather good.
Louis Blom-Cooper: Trial by jury has become a central feature of the coalition agreement policy on civil liberties ‑ but is it time for reform?