Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A step forward in the fight against egregious misuse of libel laws

Not by any means the end of the story, but here's some good news to warm the dark days of the northern mid-winter:

For immediate release:
18 January 2011

Today the European Court of Human Rights held in MGN v UK that lawyers acting for claimants in privacy and libel cases should no longer be allowed to recover a "success fee" from defendants. Such success fees have been an integral part of the no-win, no-fee agreements on which many claimant lawyers currently take these cases.

Media Legal Defence Initiative, the Open Society Justice Initiative, Index on Censorship, English PEN, Global Witness and Human Rights Watch jointly intervened in the case to express serious concern about the costs of defending libel and privacy claims in the UK. NGOs and small publishers - including bloggers- are extremely vulnerable to the threat of a costly libel or privacy actions in the UK. They simply do not have the means to defend themselves, and are easily forced to apologise and retract allegations even when they know them to be true.

Gugulethu Moyo, Executive Director of the Media Legal Defence Initiative, said: "Conditional Fee Agreements have resulted in crippling costs for publishers and stop many of them from publishing controversial stories at all. They should now be a thing of the past, and judges must now be required to control proceedings so as to bring down costs. Today's ruling should move the UK government to enact urgent reforms to English libel and privacy laws, not only to raise the standard of proof for claimants, but also to change the rules on costs. We welcome today's judgment and urge the UK government to act immediately to implement it."

Darian Pavli, Senior Attorney at the Open Society Justice Initiative, said: "The Court confirmed that legal fees awarded in England and Wales for libel and privacy cases are disproportionate and dramatically out of line with the rest of Europe. With London having become the world's libel capital, this is a victory for free speech that goes well beyond Fleet Street."

Patrick Alley, Director, Global Witness, said: "It's perverse that one of the biggest risks we face in exposing the corrupt and sometimes bloody trade in natural resources, such as blood diamonds, is legal attack in the UK by powerful people who can afford to use the legal system, with its punitive costs, to launder their reputations and protect their vested interests, regardless of the merits of their case. This judgement sends a clear signal that publication of information in the public interest is important. I hope it's a signal that is received by the UK government."

John Kampfner, chief executive of Index on Censorship, said: "This is a landmark judgment. Success fees have been one of the most significant chills on freedom of expression and today's ruling removes one of the greatest barriers to free speech in the UK."

Dinah PoKempner, general counsel of Human Rights Watch, said: "This judgement strikes a blow for freedom of expression everywhere. We urge the UK government to rapidly reverse the judicial doctrines that have made England a global destination for libel tourism."

We at TJN are forced to spend a lot of time looking over our shoulders to avoid libel risks from powerful and rich people who can afford to wipe us out as a blood sport. We welcome this move in the right direction.


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