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Britain welcomes 2014 with new libel laws

Published:Wednesday | January 1, 2014 | 12:00 AM

New libel laws that provide greater protection for people expressing their opinion are to take effect today in the United Kingdom and Wales.

Under the amended legislation, claimants will now have to show that they suffered "serious harm" before pursuing legal redress under the Defamation Act 2013.

Seeking to justify the changes, the government insisted that they would reverse the "chilling effect" the current libel laws have had on freedom of expression and legitimate debate.

The justice ministry noted that in the past, journalists, scientists, and other groups of academics have faced unfair legal threats for fairly criticising companies, individuals, and products.

"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," said Justice Minister Shailesh Vara.


"These laws coming into force represent the end of a long and hard-fought battle to ensure a fair balance is struck between the right to freedom of expression and people's ability to protect their reputation," he added.

Several stakeholder groups have welcomed the changes as good news for free speech but urged Northern Ireland to follow suit.

Mike Harris, of the coalition group the Libel Reform Campaign, expressed the hope that the judiciary would take note of the changes.

"That in the future, open debate on matters in the public interest will not be chilled by litigious oligarchs or corporations," he reasoned.

Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science, a group that forms part of the coalition, called the changes a "major step" forward; however, she, too, cautioned that a lot would depend on how the courts apply the new law.

"We will keep it under review to see that the law does give scientists the increased confidence to publish that it promises," Brown said.

The Defamation Act 2013 also makes provision for what is referred to as libel tourism - a measure that will, in effect, tighten the test for legal claims involving persons with little connection to England and Wales.