A radical shake-up of libel laws will increase protection for anyone who exposes issues of public interest, Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke has said.
Litigation costs will be reduced in the long-term under the proposals
Costs will also be brought down in the long-term, making it less likely that large corporations will be able to bully people into staying silent out of fear of the huge costs of litigation.
But controversial super injunctions and privacy laws will not be affected by the Government reforms, meaning those who can afford it will still be able to prevent information from becoming public.
“It’s a step in the struggle to get the right balance between freedom of speech and protection of reputation,” Mr Clarke said.
He added that a reduction in costs would make libel laws “less daunting” for claimants and defendants, meaning it would be “more likely they will seek a remedy where they’re entitled to it”.
People will be “more confident they are able to defend unfounded allegations and claims of defamation against them when people are issuing gagging writs, trying to get them to stop repeating allegations by threatening them with the huge costs of litigation”.
Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke unveiled the reforms
The Government said a consultation would be launched into other controversial areas of libel law – including whether to give internet service providers greater protection.
The draft Defamation Bill also proposes that juries will not be used “unless there is an exceptional case”, Mr Clarke said.
But he added that juries were still one of the best ways to tell which one of two witnesses was telling the truth.
Two new defences have also been put into the bill: one of truth, which would replace justification, and another of honest opinion, to replace fair comment.
Claimants would also have to prove that “substantial harm” had been caused for any action to be brought.
Libel tourism will also be clamped down on if the bill is passed, with courts deciding whether England or Wales is the most appropriate place to bring a libel action.
Civil rights group Liberty has welcomed the reforms, saying they “could help stem frivolous or abusive threats of libel and prevent powerful interests coming to Britain to shut down criticism and debate”.
But shadow justice minister Rob Flello warned: “The devil will be in the detail of this bill and how it will bring libel laws up to date and in line with a growing online media.”