New UK laws tougher on libel tourism

Elizabeth Fournier
CHANGES to the UK’s libel laws will make it more difficult for overseas claimants to pursue a case in the UK courts, in an effort to clamp down on so-called libel tourism.

The new Defamation Bill, released in draft form by justice secretary Kenneth Clarke (pictured) yesterday, will require claimants to prove “substantial harm”, and proposes that claims should only be brought against the first publication of a statement, preventing separate claims each time it is repeated.

The new jurisdictional rules mean cases will only be heard in the UK courts if it can be shown as “clearly the most appropriate place” for an action. Earlier this year a case was thrown out of the High Court after Ukraine’s Kyiv Post attempted to pursue a case over an article that was downloaded from the internet by just 21 UK users.

A defence of “honest opinion” will also replace the current “fair comment” justification, applicable where a statement is an expression of opinion rather than an assertion of fact.

Clarke said that the proposed reforms would balance free speech with a just treatment of claimants, and address “the increased threat of costly libel actions [which] has begun to have a chilling effect on scientific and academic debate, and investigative journalism.”

Lawyers welcomed the consultation, which runs until 10 June, but Rod Dadak, head of defamation at law firm Lewis Silkin said that the Bill’s structure meant there was a danger that “costs to claimants will be increased significantly”.