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New Year, New Libel Laws

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From 1st January 2014 new libel laws will protect people expressing opinions from being sued. The law will be brought up to date as the law of defamation was considered to be old fashioned and out of touch.

The Defamation Act 2013 will reverse the current trend of freedom of expression being unfairly hindered by libel laws, according to the Government. The Ministry of Justice has stated that unfair legal threats have caused groups such as journalists, scientists and academics from criticising a company, person or product in entirely reasonable circumstances.

The new legislation has been warmly welcomed by campaigners for freedom of speech, however there is concern that if Northern Ireland does not adopt the same approach then this could undermine the effect of the law in England and Wales.

The measures introduced by the Defamation Act 2013 include:

  • A new threshold where individuals have to prove that they suffered or are likely to suffer “serious harm” as a result of the statement. Organisations that operate for profit will have to show that they have or are likely to suffer “serious financial loss”.
  • Protection is given to scientists and academics expressing opinions in scientific or academic journals.
  • Statements made on a matter of public interest where the person making the statement reasonably believed that publishing it was in the public interest will be protected.
  • The test for claims brought in England and Wales where they have little connection to this jurisdiction has been tightened (so called “libel tourism”).
  • A new process is being introduced to assist potential victims of defamation online, enabling them to attempt to resolve the dispute with the person who made the statement directly.
  • The single-publication rule, which is intended to prevent repeated claims in relation to the same material.

It is hoped that the requirement for “serious harm” and “serious financial loss” will deter trivial claims. Regulations will be passed by Parliament which will show how the Act will operate in practice. One area that has not really been covered to date is the issue of costs, which has previously been seen as the greatest problem with defamation actions. It is however a significant attempt to update this area of the law.

The above is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.

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