With British Parliamentary elections looming, the UK has gone full force towards addressing defamation “success fee” reform.
England’s stringent libel law places the burden of proof on the defendant, making British courts a desirable venue for defamation plaintiffs. Currently, solicitors may recover up to 100% of a client’s earnings in a successful “no win no fee” defamation case. Critics of the current rules say the burden and fee rules chill free speech by journalists and media outlets. Reformed rules offered by UK Justice Secretary Jack Straw will cut attorney fees to 10%. According to the Telegraph:
Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, said this has meant that legal bills had spiraled out of control”, deterring journalists and writers from publishing articles which are in the public interest, or forcing them to settle rather than defend defamation actions.
Both houses of Parliament must approve the rules.
There is opposition in Parliament, including a procedural threat by Lord Michael Martin. [Here the Telegraph explains Lord Martin’s personal experience with Britain’s defamation law.]
Further, many legal groups oppose the reforms and are preparing legal challenges. They claim that current defamation laws do not infringe free speech but allow claimants to bring cases when they would ordinarily not have the resources to do so. They argue that the push to reform was instigated by politicians attempting to gain favor with the media.
England’s strict defamation laws place an undue on journalists, but can meaningful defamation reform happen in midst of the UK’s political system? The timing seems opportunistic. Stay tuned…
Also, Catherine Baksi provides an interesting take on the reform process in the Law Society Gazette blog.