Late to the defamation party

In the UK, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg (pictured left) has announced significant reforms of Britain’s libel laws, which I consider a very good thing.

During a wide-ranging speech today on civil liberties, he said:

We will be publishing a draft defamation bill in the Spring. We intend to provide a new statutory defence for those speaking out in the public interest, whether they be big broadcasters or the humble blogger. And we intend to clarify the law around the existing defences of fair comment, and justification.

We believe claimants should not be able to threaten claims on what are essentially trivial grounds. We are going to tackle libel tourism. And we’re going to look at how the law can be updated to better reflect the realities of the internet. Separately, we are also going to address the high costs of defamation proceedings. … Our aim is to turn English libel laws from an international laughing stock to an international blueprint.

Welcome though this is, as with many political developments, it is in danger of being overspun or at least oversold. According to yesterday’s Guardian:

Britain will become the first country to ask parliament to set out its libel laws, and provide greater clarity, his officials said.

No so, Mr Clegg, not so. As I have frequently discussed on this blog, Ireland introduced a full-scale reforming Defamation Act in 2009, which came into force on 1 January 2010. Similarly, in Australia, a uniform Defamation Act, 2005 was passed in each of the states and came into force on 1 January 2006. Indeed, New Zealand introduced a comprehensive Defamation Act in 1992, and it came into force on 1 February 1993. Far from being “first”, the UK is coming very late to this particular party. But better late than never!