High cost of UK libel cases shackles freedom of speech worldwide
February 22, 2009
When the headline "High cost of UK libel cases shackling UK newspapers, says study" popped up in my RSS-reader, it gave me an immediate urge to rephrase it:
We have ample evidence to conclude that this is not only a problem confined to Albion's green isle, it's a threat to freedom of speech worldwide.
In the interest of accuracy, one commenter was quick to point out that the problem here is English, not UK, libel law. However, because something is libellous where it is read, English libel law has become a global problem.
Several of the commenters on this article also point to that the survey it described was commissioned by Daily Mail publisher Associated Newspapers, and that maybe the high costs associated with such cases was just what was needed to deter newspapers from printing lies and libels, which is a valid point.
Still, the problem with English libel law is that due to the high cost of fighting a libel case in England AND because the law reverses the burden of proof - you're guilty until proven innocent - it has become an effective means to threathen people into silence.
Also, because something is libellous where it is read that threat is as effective in Scandinavia, or in theory in Kuala Lumpur, as in England - in the US lobbyists and politicians are even trying to get new laws in place that will protect US citizens from facing libel suits in England, motivated in part by the case of Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld and others (cases some have dubbed legal jihad or libel tourism ). For more examples, check my posts tagged libel and my delicious bookmarks tagged libel.
For the record, the study mentioned in the Guardian article is specifically focused on Conditional Fee agreements (CFA), but even without CFAs the cost of libel cases is still many times higher than in European countries it would be natural to compare England with. An interesting point from the study, called "A Comparative Study of Costs in Defamation Proceedings Across Europe", however: it concludes that the use of CFAs potentially contravenes articles 6 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights in defamation and privacy cases - so could be interesting to see what happened if the matter was brough in for the European Court of Human Rights in Maastricht.
Update 25-02/09: see also Ministry of Justice consults on 'excessive' libel costs and Libel costs threatening regional newspapers, MPs told