'Laughing stock' libel laws to be reformed, says Nick Clegg
Reforms will include right to public interest defence and will create clarity and 'international blueprint'
Nick Clegg will tomorrow set out the most ambitious plans yet to relax Britain's libel laws, saying he will back a raft of reforms including a statutory public interest defence.
He will promise that a bill this spring, likely to reach the statute book in 2013 following hard-fought lobbying, will turn "English libel laws from an international laughing stock to an international blueprint".
He will say: "We intend to provide a new statutory defence for those speaking out in the public interest. And to clarify the law around the existing defences of fair comment and justification."
Britain will become the first country to ask parliament to set out its libel laws, and provide greater clarity, his officials said.
He also wants large corporations to show they have suffered substantial damage before they sue individuals and non-governmental organisations.
A new limited privilege will be given to newspapers when reporting the proceedings of foreign parliaments.
The draft bill will also try to restrict libel tourism. The Commons select committee argued last year that it was humiliating that the US Congress was passing laws to prevent American citizens being sued in the UK courts. Anyone of any nationality can at present sue in the British courts as long as they can prove they have a reputation to defend in the UK.
The bill will also update defamation laws on the internet so as to provide greater defence for internet service providers. Government sources said they were still working on details of how to handle libel on the internet.
Libel law experts were impressed by both the rhetoric and the detail in Clegg's remarks, saying Clegg has set himself a high bar. The bill is being prepared by Lord McNally, the Liberal Democrat minister in the justice department, who has said libel law reform will be a chief test of how he judges his own ministerial career.
One source said the reforms collectively would have had the effect of putting the Guardian in a substantially better position in all its recent libel tussles, involving Tesco, Barclays, Trafigura, and Simon Singh, the science writer sued by the British Chiropractic Association for a piece written for Guardian comment.
Clegg will say the British libel laws have had a chilling effect on investigative journalism and scientific inquiry. "It is simply not right when academics and journalists are effectively bullied into silence by the prospect of costly legal battles with wealthy individuals and big businesses."
The bill will also find ways of limiting foreign claimants bringing cases against foreign defendants in English courts.
In a move that is likely to be fiercely fought, the draft bill is likely to expect corporations taking action against individuals or not-for-profit organisations to have to prove that their reputation and profitability has been substantially damaged by criticism made of them.
John Kampfner, chief executive of Index on Censorship, said last night: "Nick Clegg has set out an impressively robust agenda to change our defamation laws … the commitments he is making marks a victory for the more than 50,000 people who have backed the Libel Reform Campaign."