Simon Singh Libel Case Dropped

Simon Singh

(Guardian) – THE BRITISH CHIROPRACTIC ASSOCIATION dropped its libel action against the science writer Simon Singh today, filing a notice of discontinuation in the high court.

The case had become a cause celebre, with scientists, celebrities and freedom of speech campaigners lining up to condemn the British libel laws and argue that Singh had a right to express his opinion in print.

The sudden end to the case will strengthen the campaign for reform of the libel laws, which Jack Straw, the justice secretary, is considering. It is also a specific pledge in the Liberal Democrat manifesto.

Singh was sued by the BCA for a piece he wrote in the Guardian’s comment pages, criticising the association for defending chiropractors who use treatments for which there is little evidence on children with conditions such as colic and asthma.

Singh and his supporters were dismayed by an early verdict by Mr Justice Eady on the meaning of the words used in the article. The judge ruled that Singh was stating facts, which he would have to prove in his defence, rather than voicing opinion and that he had implied the members of the BCA knowingly promoted what Singh called “bogus treatments”.

Singh argued that was not what he meant and went to the court of appeal. Two weeks ago, he won the point.

In their ruling on the case, Lord Justice Judge, Lord Justice Neuberger and Lord Justice Sedley: “It is now nearly two years since the publication of the offending article. It seems unlikely that anyone would dare repeat the opinions expressed by Dr Singh for fear of a writ.

“Accordingly this litigation has almost certainly had a chilling effect on public debate which might otherwise have assisted potential patients to make informed choices about the possible use of chiropractic.”

Robert Dougans of Bryan Cave LLP, who represented Singh, confirmed that the BCA’s case was at an end. “All that now remains to be settled is how much of Simon’s legal costs he can recover from the BCA, and how much he will have to bear himself,” he said.

“However well this process goes, Simon is likely to be out of pocket by about £20,000. This – and two years of lost earnings, which he can never recover, is the price he has paid for writing an article criticising the BCA for making claims the Advertising Standards Agency has ruled can no longer be made. In the game of libel, even winning is costly and stressful.

“To have won this case for Simon is the proudest moment of my career, but if we had the libel laws we ought to have I would never have met Simon at all. Until we have a proper public interest defence scientists and writers are going to have to carry on making the unenviable choice of either shying away from hard-hitting debate, or paying through the nose for the privilege of defending it.”

Ely Place Chambers, the chamber of William McCormick QC, one of two barristers who represented Dr Singh, said that the BCA had ended its “ill-fated” claim.

“Dr Singh’s predicament as the sole defendant in an action brought in respect of a comment piece in the Guardian newspaper (to which the BCA never directed any complaint) was seen as a rallying point for those concerned about the abuse of UK libel laws in connection with scientific debate.”

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No Win No Fee Libel Law Shelved By Election

(Press Gazette) – LEGISLATION to drastically curb the success fees charged by lawyers who take libel cases on a “no win, no fee” basis won’t now pass into law before the election.

The Ministry of Justice carried out a fast-track consultation on cutting success fees by 90 per cent but the changes, which needed parliamentary approval, were held up last week when they were voted down at the committee stage.

Four Labour MPs joined opposition parties in voting against the order.

The MPs argued that the move could deny access to justice to people of modest means who felt they had been libelled but may be unable to find lawyers willing to take on their case.

Justice secretary Jack Straw said last week he was hopeful the changes would still go through before the general election.

He said: “I think there was quite a lot of misinformation about it and what they were arguing is if the maximum bonuses from winning a defamation action were cut from 100 per cent to 10 per cent defamation lawyers would refuse to act.

“The ten per cent figure was not plucked out of thin air; it was done on the basis of some quite sophisticated calculations.

“What I am saying is, whether it’s 100 per cent or ten per cent does not make that much difference to the finances of the very big national and international media chains, but what it affects is local papers.”

But following Prime Minister Gordon Brown yesterday calling an election for 6 May, the CFA rule-change will not now have time to pass into law.

Bob Satchwell, director of the Society of Editors, said last night in an email to members: “Despite splendid personal lobbying efforts by editors, sadly the reform of CFAs has fallen at the last hurdle because of backbench MPs’ interference for a variety of reasons and a failure to convince government whips that they should provide time for debate.

“We have presented an overwhelming case that has been accepted widely. We may only speculate on the motives of those with vested interests or at least vested grudges against parts of the media.

“The irony is that by opposing a sensible reform on the grounds that it might be have some interest for News International or the Daily Mail, their actions in fact continue to damage the parts of the media of which they approve.”

New Surrogacy Law Eases Way For Gay Men To Become Parents

(Guardian) – GAY MALE COUPLES will be able to use a fast-track route to become the legal parents of surrogate children from next week. On 6 April, changes to the law will permit two men to be named as parents on a child’s birth certificate for the first time in British history.

The transition will take effect following the implementation of the final piece of the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. This last section is aimed at helping same-sex and unmarried couples who seek to have surrogate children and will allow them to secure legal parenthood in a new, simplified manner. At present, only married, heterosexual couples can use this route.

“These changes bring the law up to date with the realities of modern 21st-century life and recognise that increasing numbers of same-sex and unmarried couples are having children together,” said Natalie Gamble, of the fertility law firm Gamble and Ghevaert.

Surrogacy has become increasingly common and offers couples an alternative route to parenthood if all other methods, including IVF treatments, fail. Current legislation allows heterosexual, married couples to get a parental order to give them a birth certificate for a child born to a mother with whom they have entered into a surrogacy agreement. But gay, lesbian and unmarried couples cannot do this. The surrogate mother has to be named on the birth certificate. If she is married, her husband is legally considered to be the father.

An example is provided by the story of Steven Ponder and his partner, Ivan Sigston. Both are police officers. Last year, they became one of the first gay couples to father a baby in Britain when Ponder’s married sister, Lorna Bradley, gave birth to a boy, William.

Crucially, however, Lorna Bradley’s name appeared on the birth certificate, which made her a legal guardian of the child. Ponder and Sigston could have applied to adopt the baby. If successful, they would have been given an adoption certificate to replace his original birth certificate. But adoption is complex and involves the intervention of social workers and other professional groups.

The new system is far more streamlined. Provided that a court is satisfied that two men are in a stable relationship; that no fees, other than expenses, are paid to the surrogate mother; and that it is in the child’s best interest, then it will award a parental order for a birth certificate to be drawn up with both men named as parents, and therefore legal guardians. “Lesbian couples and unmarried couples usually have other routes available to them if they want to have children, but surrogacy is particularly important to gay men, so they will get most out of this change in legislation,” said Gamble.In effect, the law has now opened the doors in order to make it easy for a gay man and his partner to have children.

This point was backed by Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall, the gay rights campaign group: “We are delighted that the reality of people’s family lives is being recognised at last, that both lesbian and gay couples no longer have to go through the unpleasantness of an adoption procedure.”

Gamble warned, however, that while the new legislation would make it easier for gay couples to have children, the rules governing surrogacy in the UK remained badly out of date.

“There are particular pitfalls for single parents and those going abroad. In the latter case, a couple returning to England with a surrogate child find that the law does not recognise their right to parenthood. It can cause immense distress. There are a lot of aspects of surrogacy that now need to be addressed urgently.”

Reform Of Libel Laws Will Protect Freedom Of Expression

Jack Straw

(Jack Straw) – READERS OF THE GUARDIAN know that that newspaper has been at the forefront of championing changes to our libel laws. And with good reason. As one of the leading proponents of investigative journalism, its lawyers have frequently appeared in the courtroom, defending its right to publish information which is in the public interest.

Unfortunately, the Guardian and other media outlets have too often found themselves on the losing side of the battle. Our current libel laws, cobbled together over decades of legal practice, have sometimes proven to be a disincentive against investigating and reporting the things that matter to our democracy.

This is an issue that has been growing in importance, and urgency, over the past few years. Most recently, we’ve seen concerns about the number of costly defamation cases against respected scientists, researchers and writers.

These developments have been a matter of great concern to the government, and myself personally, and we’ve already implemented immediate actions to reform the system, such as reducing the success fees lawyers can charge for “no win, no fee” cases from 100% of costs to 10%, a figure which is much fairer and more proportionate.

And in January the Ministry of Justice established the libel working group, including media and legal representatives, free speech campaigners, and members of the scientific and academic communities. Their report, published this week, makes some useful proposals.

Together with the responses we received to our recent consultation on defamation and the internet, and the recent report of the department of culture, media and sport select committee, we will use these recommendations to develop further reforms which will protect freedom of expression while continuing to ensure that individuals who are the subject of defamatory reporting have access to justice.

Today we’ve announced that, if re-elected, we’ll be pushing ahead with action on a number of issues. We want to make changes as speedily as possible, but in some cases this may need legislation. We have therefore signalled our intention to introduce a draft Libel Reform Bill in the next Parliament.

The main areas we are looking at are threefold. Firstly, we’ll be introducing a single publication rule, under which a defamation claim will have to be brought within one year from the date of the original publication. The interests of people who are defamed will be protected by giving the court the power to extend this period where necessary.

This element will specifically tackle the problem of internet publishing, and the way the law currently allows defendants to be taken to court every time allegedly libellous content is accessed online. This causes great uncertainty, as publishers are effectively subject to open-ended liability. Clearly, our current laws are not fit to handle the realities of the 21st century media landscape and internet use – this change will address that.

Secondly, the Bill will include provisions to prevent the growth of so-called “libel tourism”, which some believe has been increasing rapidly in recent years. I’m asking the Civil Procedure Rule to consider tightening the rules where the court’s permission is required to serve defamation cases outside England and Wales. This will help head off inappropriate claims at the earliest stage and stop them from reaching court.

Finally – and perhaps most importantly for the media – we’ll be looking at whether to introduce a statutory defence to protect publications that are in the public interest. A statutory public interest test which is clearly and simply expressed could help ensure that the work done by journalists, scientists and NGOs to investigate and inform the public can continue – while also preserving the right we all have to protect our reputations.

These changes build on the discussions that have taken place over the last two months among the members of the libel working group, all of whom have made a very valuable contribution to the debate.

This is only the start of the reform process. We’ll continue to consult with the media and legal professions, NGOs and the public as we develop our thinking further.

The English legal system is something we should all be proud of. Fair and open court proceedings, access to justice for all, and equality before the law are some of the basic tenets of our democracy, and these need to be valued and protected.

The last thing I want to see is our libel law being used to bring our legal system’s reputation into disrepute. From people bringing their claims in English courts despite there being little or no link to this country, to the high costs of defending a court case discouraging journalists and editors from pursuing and publishing stories the public should know about – these have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and are matters of concern to us all.

At the same time, we also need to ensure that there is not a publishing “free-for-all”, when articles of no public interest and little factual accuracy are produced, causing harm and hurt to those involved. We do need strong, effective libel laws to protect the reputations of those who fall into this category.

The steps the government has announced today will help restore a fair balance between these two needs.

Jack Straw is the Lord Chancellor and secretary of state for justice

Motown Tribute Case To Test UK Libel Law

(Guardian) – IT BEGAN as an obscure, if heartfelt, legal squabble between a Motown covers band popular on the cruise ship circuit and their Cambridgeshire-based booking agents. But now a case originating from a disputed engagement at an Italian restaurant in Leeds could bring about significant easing of the UK’s famously tough libel laws.

The row between the Gillettes – a soul vocal trio – and 1311 Events is to be examined by the UK supreme court because it hinges on interpretations of a key defence in defamation trials: that of fair comment.

It will be the first study of the issue by the country’s highest legal authority since the law lords looked into it almost 20 years ago. Media organisations hope it will clear away a tangle of legal complexities around a defence which many claim has become increasingly difficult to mount in recent years: that an opinion is not libellous if it is based on fact, is in the public interest and is levelled without malice.

The wrangling dates back to New Year’s Eve 2006, when the Gillettes, whose regular clients include cruise lines, holiday parks and corporate firms, were booked to play at Bibis restaurant. The venue liked them but, according to legal documents, thought their agent was “a total tosser” and booked the trio directly for another date a few months later.

Jason Spiller, the owner of 1311, believed this broke a “re-engagement clause” in the band’s contract which said repeat bookings had to go through the agency. He placed a notice on his company’s website saying it was no longer dealing with the Gillettes as they had told him “contracts hold no water in legal terms”.

A band member, Craig Joseph, had sent 1311 an email to this effect, but it referred only to “your contract”. The Gillettes sued for libel, saying the inference that they routinely ignored contracts was defamatory and had cost them bookings.

Lawyers acting for 1311 planned a defence based on justification – that the website comments were essentially true and fair comment. But in May last year, shortly before the trial, the band successfully applied to the high court to get both of these defences struck out. An appeal in October saw this judgement reversed, but a new objection by the Gillettes’ legal team saw the fair comment defence removed.

David Price, acting for Spiller and 1311, said the supreme court case highlighted arguments over whether fair comment, intended to guarantee freedom of expression, had become undermined by complex rules, particularly the extent to which a piece of comment had to specifically spell out the background facts:

“The supreme court clearly isn’t taking on this case because of what it’s about. They’re taking it because they believe the principles are really important and it could be said that fair comment is becoming too difficult,” he said. “The argument is that English law has become incredibly restrictive in this area, thereby inhibiting people from proper comment.”

The issue as it relates to the press was illustrated late last year when a high court judge struck out a fair comment defence by the Daily Telegraph over a book review by the writer Lynn Barber. Sir Charles Grey said Barber’s disapproving comments about the journalistic practices of Dr Sarah Thornton, author of Seven Days in the Art World, could only stand as fair comment if supported by more evidence.

The justice secretary, Jack Straw, has appointed a series of senior lawyers, newspaper executives and scientists to a panel which will consider changes to the libel laws. Straw said one of the issues to be examined would be whether current law was having a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression.

Discrimination Law Change Dropped

(Independent) – THE GOVERNMENT will not push through proposals that churches argue would restrict their ability to deny jobs to gay people and transsexuals, Equality Minister Harriet Harman confirmed today.

Her remarks came days after Pope Benedict XVI warned that the Equality Bill ran contrary to “natural law” and restricted the freedom of religious communities.

The Government was defeated three times in the Lords last month as church leaders led by the Archbishop of York feared it would restrict their ability to control who they employed.

Ms Harman said a Government amendment to the Bill had only sought to “make the distinction between religious and non-religious jobs clearer”.

During Commons exchanges on upcoming business, she said the amendment would not be brought back to Parliament and “the law will remain as it was”.

Asked to clarify the situation by Labour former minister Kitty Ussher (Burnley), Ms Harman said: “The Government’s policy is clear and has not changed.

“Our view is and remains that when it comes to religious organisations employing people they should comply with the law that applies with all other employers – whether it’s the requirement to have written contracts, to pay sick pay or to pay the minimum wage and not to sack people unfairly or to discriminate against them.”

She said “specifically religious” work was exempt from the non-discriminatory laws.

“So a religion can’t discriminate against gay people or women when they hire a bookkeeper but they can when they are choosing a minister of their religion,” she said.

“The amendment which we moved in the House of Lords did not and was not intended to change that policy position; what it sought to do was make the distinction between religious and non-religious jobs clearer.

“The Lords didn’t regard that amendment as helpful; we’ll therefore leave the law as it is and not bring back the amendment to this house.

“The law will remain as it was – there is an exemption for religious jobs but not for non-religious jobs when it comes to anti-discrimination law.”

Battery Recycling Law In Force

(Independent) – SHOPPERS will be able to recycle old batteries in thousands of shops across the country from today.

Under a European directive, every shop selling more than a pack of batteries a day will be forced to accept old batteries for recycling and most are expected to set up in-store collection points.

The change will bring Britain into line with many EU states. Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Robert Dyas, Dixons, Currys and PC World are among those offering recycling. Britons use 600 million batteries a year; just 3 per cent are recycled.

The Batteries Directive applies to all portable batteries – from those in electrical goods such as torches and radios to rechargeable batteries in mobile phones and digital music players.

An estimated 30,000 tonnes of portable batteries go on to the market in the UK each year, of which 97 per cent end up in landfill when they are finished with.

Under the new regulations, collection and recycling of batteries must rise from the current level of just 3 per cent to 10 per cent by the end of the year, 25 per cent by 2012 and 45 per cent by 2016, with manufacturers responsible for the targets being met.

The directive aims to cut the amount of batteries going to landfill, where they can leak harmful chemicals into the soil, and to save carbon emissions by reducing the need for using new materials. It comes into force in the UK today.

But battery maker Varta warned a lack of awareness among consumers and retailers – who will have to provide collection points for customers to return old batteries if they sell more than a small amount – could make the goals impossible to meet.

The British Retail Consortium said the required facilities in stores are in place but added that there is a need for wider action, including more recycling collections from homes.

Vince Armitage, divisional vice president at Varta Consumer Batteries UK, said the company has concerns about how the directive is going to work in practice.

“The directive places the responsibility of meeting its stringent collection and recycling targets on the manufacturer, but it relies on the co-operation of consumers and retailers to make it work.

“However, a lack of promotion means that awareness of the directive among these key groups is low.

“This gives us great concern that, as a nation, we are setting ourselves up to fail before we even begin.”

Collection and recycling will cost manufacturers around £1,000 a tonne, making the price tag of meeting the 10% goal £3 million, Varta estimates.

The company believes meeting the targets will become increasingly difficult as the “low-hanging fruit” of cheaper and easier options are used up.

British Retail Consortium head of environment Bob Gordon said retailers are ready with the collection facilities for old batteries, but that will not be enough on its own. It will then be up to manufacturers to collect and deal with the batteries.

He said informing customers should not just be left to shops, and called for a “comprehensive and continuing” information campaign on recycling batteries.

He added: “Shops can’t be the only route for collection. We need an infrastructure to develop which includes workplaces, schools, community centres and kerbside collection.

“All the evidence shows home collections of recyclables are easiest for customers and produce the best results. Developing these mustn’t be ignored.

“We need more local authorities to take used batteries from homes and a more consistent recycling regime for all materials.”

But Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said: “This new legislation will make it easier for consumers to do the right thing whilst ensuring retailers fulfil their part of the bargain.

“Old batteries can cause harm to the environment when they are not recycled.

“The new approach to disposal of batteries will help to reduce the number of batteries that now end up in landfill.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates that recycling batteries will save 12,000 tonnes of CO2 by 2016.