Tomorrow sees the report stage and the commencement of the hotly anticipated Defamation Bill in the House of Commons.
The bill aims to bring defamation law in the UK into the 21st century with a range of measures designed to be compatible with modern communication methods.
One of the crucial realms of debate within defamation law has been the use of the law to stifle genuine scientific debate. This prompted television science presenter and former D:Ream keyboard player Professor Brian Cox to hand a 60,000-name petition to Government. The petition called on Parliament to insert a 'public interest' defence provision into the new act. As of yet however, such a defence has not been drafted into the Bill.
One of the crucial problems with current libel law is that the mere threat of defamation often forces publishers to withdraw information rather than face a costly legal battle. Often the threat is hollow, and may not even succeed at court, but the fear of significant libel damages can be enough to silence critics. Professor Cox and others point out that when it comes to scientific debate, a system such as this can have a profoundly negative effect.
The Government believes that its new Defamation Bill will prevent trivial defamation claims by introducing a requirement for claimants to prove 'serious harm' before a case can proceed. This is in stark contrast to the current libel laws, where it is enough for any perceived harm to have been caused for a case to stand a chance of success.
Another area of hot discussion is that of libel tourism. The UK's favourable libel laws have long attracted litigants from abroad, who wish to bring their case in a jurisdiction that offers the best outcomes. In many cases the litigants may have little or no connection to the UK, prompting many to criticise UK defamation law.
The effects of libel tourism have been largely negative, with some states in the US passing laws to limit the effect that UK judgments can have on their citizens. The new Defamation Bill aims to prevent this, by introducing a test to ensure that cases are only heard if the UK is the 'most appropriate jurisdiction'.
It is thought that the new Defamation Bill will also aim to promote the use of Alternative Dispute Resolution in libel cases. Several interested parties have spoken out to support the introduction of alternative means to solving complex libel cases outside of the costly court process.
The debate of the Defamation Bill comes as The Financial Times reports that defamation lawsuits have fallen 15% in the year to May 2012. It is thought the drop in cases could be linked to the ongoing Leveson Inquiry into press ethics, which may have brought journalistic practices to heel.
Koreih Duodu is a media lawyer.
He told The Financial Times: "Public scrutiny following the eruption of the phone-hacking scandal is leading to a lower appetite for risk for some media outlets."
"The scandal will mean a more conciliatory, less controversial approach and fewer defamation cases," he added.
This is going to be a critical autumn for freedom of speech (The Telegraph)
Defamation cases fall post Leveson (The Financial Times - free signup)