Parliament panel calls for reform of libel laws

LONDON (Reuters) - A parliamentary committee said on Wednesday Britain’s libel laws should be reformed to reduce the number of litigants from abroad using British courts to take advantage of rules seen as favouring claimants.

A general view shows Court One during the opening of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom in London, October 16, 2009. REUTERS/Gareth Fuller/Pool

Prominent public figures, from celebrities to businessmen, as well as corporations, often bring cases against the media in London courts rather than in their own countries.

In England, the burden of proof rests on the defendant, who must establish what has been reported is true, as opposed to the United States for example, where the party bringing the case must prove that it is false.

The report, by the Culture, Media and Sports Committee, said the burden of proof should continue to be on the defendant in the case of individuals, but it should be reversed in cases involving corporations and defamation.

In its recommendations, the committee said that, when Britain was not the main place of residence or business of a claimant or defendant, the claimant should have to do more to justify bringing it to court there.

“It should be a matter of profound concern that the U.K. is now regarded as the jurisdiction of choice for litigants to bring libel actions, even when there is no obvious connection with this country,” said committee chairman John Whittingdale in a statement.

The report criticised lawyers who charged 100 percent of fees in a successful case to the losing party, and recommended recovery of fees from the losing party should be no more than 10 percent.

“There is a growing clamour of voices calling for reform of our libel laws in order to reduce the cost of mounting and defending libel actions,” Whittingdale said.

The committee did not go so far as to call for legislation on privacy, despite the growing number of cases in court since the passage of the Human Rights Act.

It also raised the issue of injunctions, or gagging orders that prevent the publication of allegations and called on law officials to act on concerns about their use.

When they involved reporting of parliamentary proceedings, the committee called for greater clarity.

Reporting by Mike Collett-White; editing by Andrew Dobbie