We need a law of libel to ensure that those who are the target of lies can challenge those lies, but balancing such a law against the need to allow free speech can be extremely difficult.
For decades - at least since some of the egregious lawsuits brought by the late Robert Maxwell - there have been concerns that British libel laws may make it too easy for the wealthy to use them to suppress not just lies but truth.
Nick Cohen's powerful book on censorship, "You can't read this book" made some strong points about the abuse of British libel laws.
As he pointed out, the existence of "Libel tourism" by foreign actors who have found excuses to bring libel actions in British courts against books or articles available internationally when bringing those actions in other legal jurisdictions might at first sight appear more relevant, is an indication that we may have libel laws which do not have the right balance and can too easily be used against legitimate free speech.
The cost of defending a libel action can be so ruinous that it can make it difficult to publish true statements if those statements may enrage a company or wealthy individual who is willing to hire expensive lawyers to try to suppress them.
There are other indications that rich and powerful individuals, including allies of President Putin, may be abusing our libel laws to silence true allegations.
So I welcome the annoucement today by the UK government of a clampdown on the abuse of British courts by Russian oligarchs and corrupt elites, protecting our free speech.
- The ability of a free press to hold the powerful to account is fundamental to our democracy and we must never allow criticism to be silenced through the threat of legal action.
- That is why the UK government is setting out plans to limit the use of ‘Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation’ – lawsuits typically involving the use of the threat of endless legal action and associated costs to pressure opponents under defamation and privacy laws. We are seeking views on a range of proposals, including greater protection for whistleblowers and capping the costs that claimants can recover.
- The Government will not tolerate Russian oligarchs and other corrupt elites abusing British courts to muzzle those who shine a light on their wrongdoing – this will put an end to the bullying and protect our free press.