Proposal For UK Libel Reform Fixes Many Problems, Leaves Plenty Of Others

from the it's-a-start dept

For years, we've covered the ridiculous libel laws in the UK that create a massive chilling of certain forms of speech. Thankfully, there's been a push to reform the law over the past couple years, and a draft bill has finally been introduced which appears to solve a lot of the problems with UK libel law, including limiting who it covers (to cut off crazy libel tourism cases) and reinforcing and clarifying "truth" and "fair comment" as defense, while adding an important new defense: "public interest."

That all sounds good, but it's not perfect. As Arthur Bright notes at the link above, the law still places the burden on the defendant. This is a bizarre facet of UK libel law. Whereas, in the US, the plaintiff first has to prove defamation, in the UK, it's more or less assumed to be true, and the defendant has to offer up one of the defenses in response.
The one thing that still irks about the new bill, at least from an American perspective, is that it still places the burden of a truth defense on the defendant. It still seems unfair and inefficient to put the burden of proving a statement's truth on the defendant when the plaintiff presumably has much easier access to everything they need to disprove the claim. Perhaps, with the changes the bill makes to strengthen 'fair comment' and tighten jurisdiction, the backwardness of the truth defense will not be as much of an issue. But I still worry about situations where a limited-resource defendant faces a super-wealthy corporate plaintiff - why should the poor village blogger have to prove the truth of a statement that the rich City executive ought to be able to disprove with minimal effort?
Hopefully this particular issue can be fixed in later drafts. On the whole, though, it's good to see the UK moving in the right direction on this.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. icon
    mike allen (profile), Apr 7th, 2011 @ 12:11am

    About time but as you say more needs to be done.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    The eejit (profile), Apr 7th, 2011 @ 12:25am

    Well, as a Brit....

    ...anything is better than the current law.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 7th, 2011 @ 1:12am

    Regarding burden of proof, there are two ways to look at it. Let's say that someone in the U.S. and someone else in the U.K. both post on their blogs that you f**ked a dog. You sue them both for defamation. You win your suit in the U.K. if the defendant fails to prove that you f**ked a dog. You win your suit in the U.S. ONLY if you can prove that you have never, in your entire life, ever f**ked a dog. Good luck proving that.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 7th, 2011 @ 2:30am

    Although the libel laws in the UK are completely fucked up, I love it how you automatically think that we should be aspiring to have laws exactly like the US.

    To the rest of the world the US is just a giant joke and hypocrite!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Jake, Apr 7th, 2011 @ 3:15am


    Colourfully expressed, but a cogent point. Questions of the burden of proof get very complicated when it comes to one side or another having to prove a negative, especially since libel cases can often come down to one person's word against another's.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    ethorad (profile), Apr 7th, 2011 @ 4:52am

    Re: Re:

    Plus, although the plaintiff should have evidence that the comments are untrue (leaving aside proving negatives) the defendant should have a similar level of proof.

    After all, if you don't have sources and evidence to back up your statements you would be well advised to word your comments appropriately.

    Having said that - IANAL ...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    E. Zachary Knight (profile), Apr 7th, 2011 @ 8:52am


    While the US is not perfect, one can often look at another country's laws and see what works well and what doesn't. There is nothing wrong with that.

    To Mike, US libel laws are in a better position than UK laws. To Mike US laws regarding copyright are a huge mess and should not be copied by other countries.

    So with two examples, your argument falls flat on its face.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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