Libel reform back on the agenda after Queen’s Speech
25.05.10 | Catherine Neilan

The Queen’s Speech being delivered today (25th May) looks likely to include reference to the Private Members’ Defamation Bill, which Lord Lester is planning to introduce to the House of Lords this Thursday (27th May).

According to the Sunday Telegraph, which had a leaked late draft of the speech to be made at today’s official opening of parliament, the monarch will mention libel laws as an area that should be “reviewed”.

Yesterday ran an article by the Liberal Democrat peer Lester, who described the current system as “notoriously costly, complicated and stifling of free speech”, claiming the “civil law is more chilling in its impact on the right to free speech than criminal law”. He added there was a “welcome consensus on the need for reform”.

Lester’s Defamation Bill “sets out stronger and clearer defences and strikes a fairer balance between private reputation and public information” he explained. “It is not a charter for irresponsible journalism, or a rigid code. It contains a simple framework of principles to be taken into account, so the law is applied with a sense of proportion… We need a simpler statutory public interest defence, which clearly applies to everyone and covers opinion as well as fact.”

The bill puts forward a time limit on legal action after publication, extends parliamentary privilege and gives greater protection to fair and accurate reporting of official proceedings.

Lester acknowledged there would be “professional resistance” to the changes being put forward, but stressed the need for reform. “Freedom of speech is the lifeblood of democracy, but good reputation must be protected against irresponsible journalism,” he said. “My bill seeks a better balance. I hope it will get a second reading and government support. It will be debated, fought over and improved, but reform should not be delayed.”

Simon Juden, chief executive of the Publishers Association, said he would welcome any change: “The UK laws on defamation are an embarrassment and a disgrace, and I am delighted to see further efforts being made to get them changed. All three parties have said they support libel reform, so I would be confident that when taken to a vote the right side would win.”

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