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    Thursday, 11 November 2010

    Reframing Libel: taking (all) rights seriously and where it leads

    Last week at the Reframing Libel symposium at City University, Alastair Mullis and I offered a first airing of a paper we've been developing over recent weeks. A working paper version of this paper will be published shortly, and thereafter we hope to publish a more developed, academic version of the idea.

    For the meantime, the executive summary of the working paper (reproduced below) gives a sense of our argument and proposals:

    1. In preparing this paper, we have returned to first principles and re-evaluated fundamental aspects of libel law. We offer a fresh analysis of the purposes of the law which culminates in innovative proposals regarding its substance and its processes. Our thinking has been informed by, first, philosophical understandings of democracy and the public sphere and in particular the role of freedom of speech and of the media therein, and secondly, the social psychology of reputation.

    2. The conclusions that we reach lead us to reject the overall approach taken in the Defamation Bill sponsored by Lord Lester. Though we agree with a number of his proposals and would support their adoption, we fear that overall the Bill will do little to reduce the existing complexity and expense of the law. Indeed, it may exacerbate both. Most fundamentally, we consider that the Bill addresses the problems of libel law through the prism of an over-weaned emphasis on freedom of expression, and therefore fails properly to triangulate the rights and interests of claimants, defendants and the wider public.

    3. Ultimately, we recommend a coherent set of significant substantive and procedural reforms that if enacted would enhance access to justice, simplify processes and reduce costs for the vast majority of libel actions. In essence, our proposal involves the recommendation of a two-track libel regime.

    4. The first track in this new regime would comprise a much-simplified process. This could be administered by the High Court, but the function might instead be allocated to the County Court, the Tribunals Service, or an appropriately designed (self-)regulator. The overwhelming majority of cases would be addressed by this route. Damages would only be available for psychological harms protected under Article 8 ECHR, but would be capped at £10,000. Vindication would be obtained by an appropriate – and mandated - discursive remedy (correction; apology; right of reply; declaration of falsity). The remedy in damages for intangible harm to reputation would be withdrawn. Special damages for provable loss would be unavailable in this track. Determination of the meaning of imputations would be much simplified by adopting the meaning(s) inferred by the claimant subject to a test of capability / reasonableness / significance. Truth and fair comment would remain as the primary defences, while in appropriate cases the defendant would also be able to rely on absolute, traditional or statutory qualified privilege. The rationale underpinning the Reynolds public interest defence in track one would disappear. The approaches to substantive questions suggested here would very significantly reduce the complexity and cost associated with particular cases. Hence, it would reduce the chilling effect of the law on publication, and markedly enhance access to justice for defendants and claimants.

    5. The second track would be limited to the most serious and/or most damaging libels. Cases would proceed down this track only where special damages for provable loss are claimed, or where psychological harms protected under Article 8 are severe so that the track one procedure would be manifestly inappropriate to deal with the case. Track two cases would continue to be heard in the High Court. As in track one, the remedy in damages for intangible harm to reputation would be unavailable, and vindication would be obtained by a discursive remedy. Where proven by the claimant, special damages would be recoverable. Uncapped damages would be available for Article 8 psychological harm (although a de facto cap would remain by pegging to damages recoverable for physical injury). On account of the power of the court to award very substantial damages and the likelihood of significantly increased costs, the potential pre-publication chilling effect requires the availability of a Reynolds-style public interest defence in track two. Where the defendant relies on Reynolds, however, proper recognition of the underlying principles of freedom of expression and the importance of reputation require that the defendant provide either a right of reply or a notice of correction with due prominence. Truth and/or fair comment would remain available, and in appropriate cases the defendant would be able to rely on absolute, traditional and / or statutory qualified privilege.

    6. We envisage that adoption of the above scheme would also provide significant incentives for complaints to be settled quickly between the parties without recourse to the formal legal regime. We recognise that the availability of track two may continue to facilitate the abusive threat of legal action, but suggest that claims to have suffered severe Article 8 harm or particular losses could be easily identified and quickly dismissed by the court if unsubstantiated. We also recognise that the releasing of media defendants in most cases from the risk of very significant legal costs and damages may encourage ‘game-playing’ by some organisations. In our view, the blunt constraint currently afforded by high costs are adequately substituted by obliged dedication of space to accommodate discursive remedies and the loss of credibility that would go along with such repeated emphasis on poor quality journalism. We do not shy from the fact that these remedies themselves involve interference with defendants’ Article 10 rights ‘not to speak’. We also note that discursive remedies afforded quickly are often the primary outcome that claimants seek.