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Publishers may get insufficient protection under Defamation Bill, says Lords Committee

11 December 2012

The House of Lords Constitution Committee has today published its report on the Defamation Bill ahead of Committee stage in the House of Lords, which is due to start on 17 December

In their report the Committee says that the Bill may not provide publishers with a 'sufficiently robust and succinct defence' against defamation claims on the basis that publication was in the public interest. The Committee question whether clause 4 of the Bill adequately reflects the case law on 'Reynolds privilege', which was established by the Law Lords in 1999 in Reynolds v Times Newspapers. 

The Committee also considers how the recommendations in the recent report from Lord Justice Leveson on the culture and practices of the press interact with the proposals for reforming defamation law. It says that that the assurance of a genuinely independent and effective regulatory system for the press, together with the creation of a speedy complaints-handling system and inexpensive arbitration, would help underwrite the case for a stronger public interest defence in defamation. The Committee says the House of Lords will want to consider the extent to which the Leveson recommendations would make recourse to the courts unnecessary. However, the Committee does not enter the debate on whether the press regulator should have statutory underpinning.

The Committee also says that more detail should be included in the Bill about the proposed defence for operators of websites.

Commenting on the report, Baroness Jay of Paddington, chairman of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, said:

"Freedom of speech is a constitutional principle of the utmost importance. However, it has to be considered alongside the rule of law—which includes victims of abuse obtaining effective legal redress.It is important that journalists and publishers feel confident that they can draw attention to matters of public interest without fear of being sued for defamation. There must be occasions where one can publish without being damned. We are concerned that the Defamation Bill as currently drafted does not adequately replicate the defence for publishers known as Reynolds privilege.

However, as the Leveson report has shown, it is vital that the public also have protection from the press when they are treated unfairly. If the regulatory and redress regime set out by Lord Justice Leveson is introduced it would provide a strong argument in favour of further enhancing the public interest defence in defamation cases."