April 29, 2013
UK updates libel laws, but not soon enough for Amanda Knox
by Ariel Bogle
After decades of being known world-wide as the friendliest jurisdiction to sue someone for libel in, England is set to change its laws.
Earlier this year, the path to libel law reform in the UK seemed rocky in the wake of the Murdoch empire’s phone hacking scandal. A number of well-known British authors, including Salman Rushdie and Julian Barnes, put their names to a petition calling for the new laws to be passed.
Authors and journalists were eager to see change, as the previous state of the law allowed many books and articles to be quashed and writers bankrupted when those accused of misdeeds sued, particularly those outside the UK, who freely used the English courts as those most open to their cases.
The English laws so easily allowed authors and journalists to be sued for libel that a number of jurisdictions in the United States passed laws to specifically state that English cases were unenforceable, and that they were incompatible with First Amendment rights.
Sarah Lyall in the New York Times writes that as of Thursday last week, England will discourage foreigners from seeking to sue for libel there.
“Under the new law, claimants wanting to sue defendants who do not live in Europe will have to prove that England is the most appropriate place for the case. This is intended to stop foreigners from suing other foreigners in English courts over, for instance, books or magazines that have sold just a handful of copies here, or Web sites that have been viewed few or even no times.”
Among a number of other changes designed to make cases more easily defensible for the accused, defendants will now be able to cite public interest as a defense. If used, judges will have to assess whether the defendant is able to prove that the offending piece was created in good faith, or “in what they believed to be the “public interest”—whether or not the statements were true. And statements are to be judged defamatory only if they lead to actual damage to the aggrieved party.”
The reforms did not come quick enough for Harper Collins UK, however, as they decided last week not to publish the Amanda Knox autobiography in the UK. Writes Mark Sweney in The Guardian,
“The publisher is concerned that the UK’s stringent libel laws mean that it could run into legal difficulties because a retrial of Knox and her ex-boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, has been ordered by Italian authorities.”
As Sweney notes, the Knox book join a string of books that have not been published in the UK for legal reasons, including Lawrence Wright‘s latest Scientology expose, Going Clear.
Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.