Britain’s plaintiff-friendly libel laws have become an international embarrassment, British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said on Friday, vowing to change rules that have made the country a “libel tourism” destination for angry corporations and foreign celebrities.
In a speech on civil liberties, Clegg said the existing laws, which place the burden of proof on defendants, have a chilling effect on journalism and scientific debate.
It is “simply not right when academics and journalists are effectively bullied into silence” by the prospect of costly legal battles, he said.
Libel laws in many countries, including the US, generally require plaintiffs to prove a published article was both false and written maliciously. In Britain, the burden of proof falls on the defendant to demonstrate what it published was true.
That has led celebrities and corporations to sue in British courts, even when the case has only a tenuous connection to the UK — a form of “libel tourism” the government has vowed to curb.
In 2006, US actress Kate Hudson successfully sued the National Enquirer for libel in London, relying on the fact that the US publication has a British edition. In another case, a Saudi businessman successfully sued an American academic over a US-published book about the financing of terrorism that had sold only 23 copies in Britain.
Clegg said the system has become “a farce — and an international embarrassment.”
Saying that the US Congress last year passed a law protecting US citizens from the enforcement of legal settlements in foreign jurisdictions such as Britain, Clegg called Britain’s libel laws “an international laughing stock.”
Some legal experts disagreed.
“The US is not the world, and the fact that they do not like our libel laws should not be interpreted as meaning they are an international laughing stock,” said Rod Dadak, head of defamation at law firm Lewis Silkin.
Clegg said a new draft defamation law would be produced in the next few months. He said it would introduce a new defense of speaking in the public -interest, and clarify the existing libel defenses to stop claimants suing “on what are essentially trivial grounds.”
He also said the law would be updated to give more protection to people who write on the Internet.
Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third party, have long been known as champions of civil liberties and equality. Since becoming part of a coalition government with the Conservatives in May, the Lib Dems have had to backtrack on many issues, including a long-standing promise to abolish university tuition fees — due to triple under the current government.
That has seen the party’s popularity plummet to single figures in opinion polls. With his speech on freedom of speech and civil liberties on Friday, Clegg was returning to more comfortable ground.
He promised to “restore British liberties” and repeal several measures introduced by the previous Labour administration in the name of fighting crime and terrorism. The government has already scrapped a plan for national identity cards and promised to cull the police DNA database, one of the world’s largest.
Clegg acknowledged that “the threat we face from terrorists is very, very real,” but said “Labour got the balance between liberty and security wrong” by introducing over-restrictive measures.
Clegg acknowledged the government faces a struggle to reform the contentious system of “control orders,” under which a handful or terrorist suspects are held under a form of house arrest because there is not enough evidence to take them to court.
“I don’t think it’s justifiable to impose virtual house arrest without having to charge or convict someone first,” Clegg said, but he admitted that there was “a small number of people” who are a danger to Britain, but can’t be brought to court.
Clegg said the control order system would be changed, but he couldn’t say how.
“I am going to change it,” he said. “What I am not prepared now to say is what aspect of the regime is going to change.”
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