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Libel law to be overhauled as Defamation Bill gets royal assent

A three-year battle to bring libel law into the 21st century came to a close yesterday (25 April) as the Defamation Bill received Royal Assent.

The Defamation Act 2013 will mean that companies and individuals bringing a libel claim are now required to show serious harm – including serious financial loss for a company – to establish a claim.

Key provisions include protection for scientists and academics publishing in peer-reviewed journals, as well as those who are publishing material that they reasonably believe is in the public interest, with the new Act including an explicit public interest defence.

Further welcome changes include a single publication rule to prevent repeated claims against a person in relation to the same material, and a ‘tighter test’ for ‘those with little connection to England and Wales’ before they can bring a claim to court.

Libel law has longed been criticised as antiquated, overly expensive and unfair, which many argued had creating a ‘chilling effect’ on freedom of expression and the ‘stifling of legitimate debate,’ a Ministry of Justice statement said yesterday.

The new Act is intended to bring about ‘a new era’ of libel law and balance the protection of freedom of expression with those who feel their reputations have been unjustly attacked.

The news is particularly welcome given that only in March the Defamation Bill looked to be under threat, after Labour peer Lord Puttnam attempted to insert a Leveson-style amendment into the Bill.

That action caused widespread outcry among libel reform campaigners, including Sense about Science and English PEN, as well as the media, which feared that the Bill would not receive final approval and would have to start the legislative process again.

There were further fears in April that the Bill would be derailed after Tory MP and libel lawyer Sir Edward Garnier called for the removal of provisions forcing companies to show financial damage and protecting the freedom to criticise local authorities.

However, the landmark legislation was passed with a majority vote of 78 by the Lords, and will now receive formal approval from the House of Commons, meaning there will be no further opportunity to make amendments.

‘This Act represents the end of a long and hard fought battle to reform the libel laws in England and Wales,’ said Justice Minister Lord McNally.

‘Throughout the process all parties have listened and worked together to produce legislation that delivers the reforms required in the 21st century. Everyone involved can be rightly proud of this Act and the protections and freedoms it offers.’