Science writer wins "fair comment" libel appeal

LONDON (Reuters) - Science writer Simon Singh, who is being sued for libel over an article he wrote about chiropractors, won on Thursday what campaigners said was an important legal right to use fair comment as a defence.

Singh is being sued by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) over an opinion piece he wrote in the Guardian newspaper in April 2008.

In the article, he suggested there was a lack of evidence for the claims some chiropractors make on treating certain childhood conditions including colic and asthma.

The BCA alleged that Singh in effect had accused its leaders of knowingly supporting bogus treatments.

Last year, the High Court ruled that his comments were an assertion of fact, rather than an expression of opinion, meaning he could not use the defence of fair comment.

But The Court of Appeal decided that the High Court judge had “erred in his approach” and backed Singh, the Press Association reported. Singh said he was hugely relieved.

“After two years of fighting an uphill battle, we’ve now at least got the wind behind us,” he told Sky News.

Campaigners say the case is crucial, arguing that scientific debate should not be restricted by fears of libel action.

“Of course this could go on for another two years and that’s the utterly ridiculous thing about libel law,” Singh said.

The government has been considering reforming defamation laws, particularly over concerns that British courts are being used by litigants from abroad to take advantage of rules which are seen as being favourable to claimants.

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.

Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris said Thursday’s “sensible” judgement was not a substitute for reform of the law.

“It is no kind of justice for a scientist to spend 200,000 pounds and two years of his life just to get half-way through a case,” he said.

“The political parties must now all commit to reform of the law to free scientific speech and responsible journalism from the threat of penury.”

Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Steve Addison