Libel reform coming, says McNally
Libel reform should not be delayed by the ‘Leveson tsunami’, the justice minister Lord McNally said today, giving a strong hint that a reform bill would feature in the government’s next legislative programme. ‘I would be immensely disappointed if it wasn’t in the Queen’s speech,’ McNally told a conference organised by the Westminster Legal Policy Forum.
McNally reiterated the government’s desire for a ‘rebalancing’ of the current law, to protect free speech and provide an effective remedy for people unjustly defamed.
Following consultation on a draft bill and ongoing discussions with stakeholders, he hoped parliament would press ahead with change without waiting for the outcome of Lord Leveson’s inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press. ‘I don’t want reform swept away by the Leveson tsunami, that will delay things,’ he said.
McNally said that although any proposed bill would not directly address the issue of the cost of cases, he expected that reforms to other aspects of the process would have a ‘significant’ impact on reducing costs and encouraging settlement.
He said the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders bill, currently going through parliament, was not the appropriate measure to deal with costs issues in defamation claims. But he suggested that a system of qualified one-way cost shifting, proposed in the LASPO bill for personal injury claims, could be extended to cover defamation.
McNally said more needs to be done by judges to drive down costs by better management of cases. He also said more should be done to encourage alternative dispute resolution (ADR), such as mediation.
The chair of the joint committee on the Draft Defamation Bill, Lord Mawhinney, said that if it were up to the committee, ADR would be statutorily binding. Most claimants, he said, are more concerned with setting the record state and receiving an apology than with damages, which he said can be achieved faster and more cheaply through ADR.
Libel barrister and joint head of chambers at 5 Raymond Buildings Desmond Browne QC said: ‘The cold draft in the chilling effect of defamation is the cost, not the law. It is no good amending the substantive law unless serious attention is paid to costs and judicial case management.’