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Government plans libel shield for online news archives

The Government has outlined its plans for a reform of libel law, but said that it will not be possible to pass the proposed new law before this year's general election.

The Libel Reform Bill will not be introduced until the next Parliamentary session, by which time the current Labour Government might not be in power and in a position to introduce it.

The Bill will attempt to revise libel law to give investigative journalism more protection, to stop the British courts being used to silence criticism and to make the law more appropriate for a world in which the web is as likely a publication medium as paper.

It will introduce a 'single publication' rule. Defamation actions can be brought within a year of publication, but defining when publication happens has been an area of controversy, with some cases suggesting that every new accessing of a story on the internet constitutes a new publication.

The new Bill will ensure that the year in which action can be taken runs only from the original publication of an article.

"This will ensure that claimants in libel proceedings cannot bring a case against every publication or download of a story repeating the same claims," said a statement from the Ministry of Justice. "Claimants will only be able to bring a single action, within one year of the date of the original publication. The interests of people who are defamed will be protected by giving the court the power to extend this period where necessary."

Justice Secretary Jack Straw said that the law needed to be overhauled because it is currently too easy for people to quash criticism of them using libel laws.

"Our current libel laws need to achieve a fair balance between allowing people to protect their reputations from defamatory allegations, and ensuring that freedom of expression and the public's right to know on matters of public interest are not unnecessarily impeded," he said. "At the moment, we believe that the balance is tilted too much in favour of the former."

The new Bill could contain a defence against libel actions of acting in the public interest.

"This will help address the 'chilling effect' that the threat of libel proceedings can sometimes have on investigative journalism, which occurs when media outlets and NGOs [non-governmental organisations] are cautious about publishing important information due to the threat of legal action," said the Ministry.

The Bill will also contain measures aimed at stopping people in other countries with liberal libel laws taking their cases in the UK only because libel laws are strict here. Internet publication has allowed some to claim that articles published elsewhere about people who live elsewhere that are read online in the UK can be the subject of libel claims in the UK.

The Ministry of Justice said that action "will include asking the Civil Procedure Rule Committee to consider tightening the rules where the court’s permission is required to serve defamation cases outside England and Wales. This will help head off inappropriate claims at the earliest stage and stop them from reaching court".

The Ministry of Justice has already decided to reduce the success fees charged by no-win-no-fee lawyers from 100% to 10% in a bid to reduce the costs of defamation law suits. Straw said that though no-win-no-fee arrangements were put in place to increase access to justice it had had the effect of stifling, particularly in the areas of science and academia.

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