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Government waters down changes to UK libel law by making it easier for companies to sue

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f2511 (Published 19 April 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f2511
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. 1BMJ

The UK coalition government has won a vote in the House of Commons removing a requirement in the Defamation Bill for companies to prove financial loss before being allowed to sue for libel.

The bill, which is intended to make the draconian libel laws in England and Wales more in favour of free speech, had been amended in the House of Lords to require companies to show financial loss to get permission to sue.

The amendment had been welcomed by free speech campaigners, who said that it would mitigate the power of corporations to use the libel laws to silence legitimate critics. But the government argued that the amendment would be unnecessarily costly by requiring an extra hearing to decide whether permission would be granted.

The amendment was defeated by 298 to 230 votes. But the justice minister, Helen Grant, indicated that she would look at it again to see whether a compromise was possible. The Conservatives had promised concessions to win the support of their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, who strongly back reform of the libel law.

The Ministry of Justice said, “The government is concerned that some of the changes made by the Lords are unnecessarily costly and restrictive. This needs to be addressed.

“We understand the strength of feeling over whether corporations should be required to demonstrate serious financial loss. We are actively considering this and will listen carefully to the views of both houses.”

The Tory MP Peter Bottomley, who supported the Lords amendment, referred in the debate to the cases of cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst and the science writer Simon Singh, who ran up large bills fighting libel actions.

Wilmshurst was sued by the US company NMT Medical over comments he made about the way the company conducted a clinical trial of a heart device. The British Chiropractic Association, a company limited by guarantee, sued Singh over an article accusing it of promoting “bogus” treatments.

The government has refused to back down on a clause, also added by the Lords, that would have banned companies performing public services on contract from suing for libel, a ban that already applies to government departments and local councils. That amendment was also voted against.

Peers could reintroduce the amendments when the bill goes back to the Lords on 23 April unless a compromise was reached in the meantime.

Tracey Brown of the campaigning group Sense about Science said, “We are pleased that so many MPs recognise the need for corporations to show actual financial harm and grateful to the MPs who worked for this. While it is deeply disappointing that the corporations clause has been removed, their efforts have at least led the government to concede that this should be revisited in the Lords.

“It cannot be right that the court is not asked to consider whether companies have faced loss, or are likely to, before a case can go ahead. It cannot be right that citizens can’t criticise delivery of public services, whether by private companies or by the government.”

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f2511