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Changes to the libel laws were one of the hottest topics of the last session of the new parliament - before being scuppered by West Bromwich East MP Tom Watson among others. Now new legislation has been launched in the Lords.

Lord Lester QC has published a Private Members’ Defamation Bill, rated by supporters as the first attempt in over a century to put forward a wholesale redraft of the libel laws.

The proposals include a statutory defence for responsible publication on a matter of public interest; and clarifying the defences of justification and fair comment, which would be renamed as ‘truth’ and ‘honest opinion’.

The Bill also:

  • requires claimants to provide evidence their reputation was damaged by an alleged libel before they can bring a case forward (they don’t have to do this at present) and make corporations prove financial damage before they can sue.
  • Addresses the problems introduced by the rise of the internet and the culture of online publication including the multiple publication rule that makes each download a fresh instance of libel, and alter the responsibility of forum hosts for what is posted on their sites.
  • Encourage the speedy settlement of disputes without parties having to bring in costly lawyers.
  • Promote the speedy settlement of disputes without recourse to the courts.

The only question now is - will the Bill get the backing of the coalition government.

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