Renewed calls for libel reform - Little relish in McLibel victory

Friday 20 June 1997

UK News

THE case has been greeted as an example of the need for reform of the libel law. Adam Newey, news editor of Index on Censorship, said: "Libel protects the powerful, not the weak - inevitably it has a stifling effect on public debate."

The huge costs in an action for defamation mount from the moment a writ is issued. For defendants it can be even tougher. Home and savings are at risk, and legal aid is not available.

Helen Steel and Dave Morris unusually did not have highly-paid jobs or houses to lose. They were willing to spend more than two years working full time on the case.

But they had to cope with a difficult and intricate area of law. Mr Justice Rodger Bell said during the McDonald's case that libel was difficult for the litigant in person. "In ordinary negligence claims if you don't know what the law is you can say what you think is sensible and there is a 90 per cent chance of being right," he said. "I'm not sure the percentages aren't the reverse of that in the law of defamation."

Mr Morris and Miss Steel were refused a jury, on the grounds that the issues were too complex, though as litigants in person they were expected to grasp them themselves.

Geoffrey Bindman of Bindman and Partners, and visiting professor at University College London, said the law originated after the French Revolution, when it was used to suppress the propagation of democratic ideas. "Libel law is often used to suppress publication of information which the public ought to know," he said.

He would like to see a new code with a bias to freedom of expression and of information with safeguards for privacy and reputation. In America, the First Amendment to the constitution guarantees freedom of speech. If allegations about a public company deal with issues of public concern, it is hard to get damages.

The company must prove allegations to be false, whereas in Britain the defendant has to prove they are true. Mr Bindman believes that it would be wrong to duplicate American law exactly. But Robert Maxwell, for example, would not have been able to use the libel law as a weapon if similar provision had existed here.

Recent reforms have made libel cases quicker, but the basic principles are unchanged. The Labour Government promised in its election manifesto to bring in a Freedom of Information Bill, incorporating provisions in the European Convention on Human Rights.

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