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Friday, April 02, 2010

Libel law giveth and it taketh away

By now I'm sure those of you with half an interest in libel law will have heard news of Simon Singh's successful appeal in the action brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association. A very good summation of the hearing and what might happen next can be read in The Times report of the case.

To sum up, very briefly, Simon Singh, a science writer whose publications include the excellent Fermat's Last Theorem, wrote an opinion piece in The Guardian in 2008 in which he alleged the BCA promoted 'bogus treatments' for childhood conditions like asthma, colic and earache.

The BCA sued him for libel and in an earlier hearing in the High Court, Mr Justice Eady said that Singh's article had contained assertions of fact and so he could not use the defence of 'fair comment' which normally protects statements of opinion.

Singh might have given up then as his legal bills were already soaring, but he fought on to appeal that point, that he should be allowed to use fair comment as a defence. And that is what he won yesterday, the Court of Appeal said he ought to be allowed to use fair comment as a defence.

The judgement is interesting for a number of reasons, but I particularly liked phrases such as: "This litigation has almost certainly had a chilling effect on public debate which might otherwise have assisted potential patients to make informed choices about the possible use of chiropractic." And that in suing Singh personally and rejecting an offer of an article in reply from the Guardian "The unhappy impression has been created that this is an endeavour by the BCA to silence one of its critics."

The full judgement is beautifully crafted and has been put up on Scribd by journalism.co.uk as part of their coverage of the case.

Heartening thought the judgement is, it's taken two years and £200,000 to get this far and it's only half way. The ball is in the BCA's court. It can go back to trial, with Singh allowed to use fair comment, it can appeal to the Supreme Court or it can drop the case. As the appeal court judges said, this is no way to pursue scientific debate.

The problem is that Simon Singh is the tip of the iceberg. He is the brave writer prepared to devote the time and cash to the battle. But for every Simon Singh there are hundreds of publishers who drop articles apologise and pay out of court simply to avoid the ruinous expense of a libel action.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw, to his credit, has begun to do something about this and had introduced reforms into Parliament that would cut 'success fees' for no-win, no-fee lawyers. This is the system where a lawyer who takes on a case on a conditional fee - no-win, no-fee - can be awarded 'uplift' - a success fee if they win the case. This means, dependent on how much uplift the court awards, they might double the fees they charge.

Now the order introduced by Straw has been voted down by a committee of MPs. Straw is hopeful it might be revived when it comes to the Commons.

Somewhat strangely, one of the MPs who opposed the order was Chris Mullin, a former journalist of great repute. He said he felt lawyers would not take on tough cases any more.

This is a much more important issue for the regional press. I travel a lot talking to regional editors and they tell me that as much as 90% of the libel threats they get are coming from CFA lawyers and that in the vast majority of cases they settle rather than face the crippling costs of an action.

Straw's reform would have cut the fees that CFA lawyers could expect to get. This would make fighting an action more realistic as it would drive down costs.

For the regional press the issue of the potential cost of a libel action remains the most pressing concern and until that is addressed the chilling effect of libel will suppress freedom of expression.

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