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.”

Simon Singh’s Resounding Victory Raises Hope Of Libel Reform

(Guardian) – A LEADING SCIENCE WRITER has won a “resounding victory” in the court of appeal over a libel battle which has become a catalyst for the reform of English libel laws, which critics claim stifle scientific debate. Today’s decision will strengthen the position of other science writers facing libel suits as the judges made clear that court was not the place to settle scientific controversies.

The landmark ruling, which cited Orwell and quoted passages from Milton in defence of free speech, will allow Simon Singh to rely on a “fair comment” defence of his statements about chiropractors, for which he is being sued. The court of appeal overturned an earlier ruling which would have meant that Singh would have had to prove in court that his comments about chiropractors were factually correct to avoid a libel judgment against him.

Singh was accused of libel by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) over an opinion piece he wrote in the Guardian in April 2008. In the article, he criticised the BCA for claiming its members could use spinal manipulation to treat children with colic, ear infections, asthma, sleeping and feeding conditions and prolonged crying. He described the treatments as “bogus” and based on insufficient evidence and criticised the BCA for “happily promoting” them. The BCA denies these criticisms.

Following today’s ruling, Singh’s comments are recognised by the court as a matter of opinion which did not imply that the BCA was being consciously dishonest.

On the steps of the court, Singh, who faces further court action, described the ruling as “brilliant” but added: “It is extraordinary this action has cost £200,000 to establish the meaning of a few words.”

Singh’s lawyer, Robert Dougans, said: “Scientists have been – rightly – concerned about the consequences they might face if opponents seek to counter their arguments with a libel claim rather than engage in debate and research. The court of appeal’s brave decision today gives hope that important research on scientific matters will be protected against libel threats and will hopefully make people think again before embarking on legal action hoping to shut down debate.

“It is clear from the judgment that the court of appeal is not satisfied with the current state of English libel laws and recognises the absurdities and injustices that can result from them as they currently stand.”

Mark Stephens, a media lawyer, said the judges should be “warmly applauded for avoiding turning court 13 into an Orwellian Ministry of Truth”. He said libel lawyers had tried to make litigation over what is an opinion “increasingly technical” and “increasingly expensive”. Since the ruling, he had already advised a client facing a libel suit that he was in a better position than before.

Allen Green, the writer of the 2010 Orwell Prize-longlisted blog Jack of Kent, said of Singh’s appeal: “His victory is cheering, but for him to have got here has been a complex, depressing, and obscenely expensive journey.

“This is not an example of the English libel laws working. Instead it is a horrifying example of how bad they really are. For him to have to struggle to win in this way signals the urgent need for libel reform.”

Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP who has led the cross-party parliamentary campaign for reform, welcomed the judgment but said it was no substitute for libel reform. 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.”

The ruling, by England’s two senior judges, the lord chief justice of England and the master of the rolls, together with Lord Justice Smedley, was scathing of the way the BCA began libel proceedings against Singh rather than taking up the Guardian’s offer of a right to reply. It acknowledged that the action had a “chilling effect on public debate” which it described as a “surprising consequence of laws designed to protect reputation”.

It said the BCA’s actions had created the “unhappy impression” that “it is an endeavour by the BCA to silence one of its critics”.

In a development which would strengthen the position of any science or health writer facing libel threats, the judges also made it clear that they believed court was not the place to settle scientific controversies. They wanted to avoid “an Orwellian ministry of truth” in which an author had to prove in court what he had asserted.

The case has led to a campaign to raise awareness of Britain’s libel laws, which many consider to be among the most anti-free speech in the world.

The BCA posted a statement on its website today saying it was not its intention to suppress free speech and it was simply seeking to clear its name. It was considering whether to seek permission to appeal to the supreme court in the light of what it described as a disappointing ruling.

Richard Brown, the group’s president, said: “This is not the end of the road.”

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