Libel tourism is a very rare thing in UK courts, finds study

Out-Law News | 02 Sep 2010 | 11:21 am | 1 min. read

Just three out of 83 defamation cases reported in the UK in the past year involved libel tourism, according to a study. Concern about foreign residents suing foreign publishers in UK courts greatly outweighs its actual occurrence, the figures suggest.

Legal publisher Sweet & Maxwell, a division of publishing giant Thomson Reuters, published the results of its study yesterday. Its findings contradict the widely-held view that the UK courts act as a magnet for overseas residents wishing to sue overseas publishers that may have minimal interests in the UK.

 "The low number of libel tourism cases identified raises the question as to how widespread libel tourism now is," said Sweet & Maxwell in a statement.

Libel laws in the UK have been criticised for being overly protective of individuals' or companies' reputations. By contrast, in the US there are strong protections for free speech and public interest, making libel actions in that country's courts comparatively rare.

Those who feel their reputations have been damaged may seek the most sympathetic courts in which to take their actions, a practice also known as forum shopping. Arguing that online publication brings an article within UK jurisdiction, some have taken their actions in the courts in England and Wales.

Critics point to examples of libel tourism like Don King's. English courts were used when the boxing promoter, an American living in America, sued another American living in America over comments that appeared on an American website.

The US has since passed a federal law to prevent libel judgments from UK courts being enforced in the US. The UK Government has also pledged to reform libel laws to restrict forum shopping. But Sweet & Maxwell's research suggests that the concern outweighs the practice.

The research also found that the total number of reported defamation cases in 2009-2010 had risen by 6% from 78 in 2008-2009. This was led by an increase in claims from celebrities and sports stars, it said, which nearly trebled in that period, from 11 to 30.

According to Sweet & Maxwell, that rise may be the result of a closer working relationship between agents and managers of celebrities and law firms that specialise in bringing defamation claims against the media.

"The more widespread use of digital media monitoring services of print and online media by the managers of celebrities give a more reliable record of when the media might have published damaging material," said Sweet & Maxwell. "The media has also complained that the use of 'no win no fee' agreements encourages defamation claims against the media that would not normally have been launched."