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New UK libel law for websites

world Updated: Jan 01, 2014 23:30 IST
British libel laws

New British libel laws to better protect journalists and others expressing their opinions – including protection for websites where controversial opinions are expressed – come into effect from Wednesday under the Defamation Act 2013.

For the first time, a new threshold has been set, by which claimants will need to demonstrate that they have suffered “serious harm” before suing for libel. This will discourage trivial claims that harm freedom of speech and unnecessarily take up court time.

The act introduces a new process to help a person who feels an online statement is defamatory to resolve the dispute directly with the person who has posted the statement, official sources said.

This offers better protection for the operators of websites hosting user-generated content, provided they follow the new process. New regulations have been introduced to ensure that this process operates effectively.

Justice Minister Shailesh Vara said: “The introduction of these new measures will make it harder for wealthy people or companies to bully or silence those who may have fairly criticised them or their products”.

He added: “As a result of these new laws, anyone expressing views and engaging in public debate can do so in the knowledge that the law offers them stronger protection against unjust and unfair threats of legal action”.

The Defamation Act 2013 is expected to reverse the “chilling effect” on freedom of expression current libel law has allowed. For example, some journalists, scientists or academics have faced unfair legal threats for fairly criticising a company, person or product.

Measures in the new act include:

•Protection for scientists and academics publishing peer reviewed material in scientific and academic journals;

•Protection for those who are publishing material on a matter of public interest where they reasonably believe that publication is in the public interest;

•A single publication rule to prevent repeated claims against a publisher about the same material;

•Greater protection for secondary publishers including booksellers and newsagents by removing the possibility of an action for defamation being brought against them if it is reasonably practicable for an action to be brought against the primary publisher.

For several years, campaigners have been seeking changes in laws to ensure that a fair balance is struck between the right to freedom of expression and people’s ability to protect their reputation.

The Defamation Act was given Royal Assent on 25 April 2013 and came into force on Wednesday.