Clegg Calls For End To ‘Stifling’ Libel Laws

(Independent) – BRITAIN’S “STIFLING” LIBEL LAWS are “making a mockery” of the justice system and risk snuffing out legitimate scientific debate, Nick Clegg warns.

In a speech at the Royal Society, the Liberal Democrat leader will blame “draconian and unbalanced” laws for the growth of libel tourism that has seen London become the libel capital of the world. His party is drawing up a package of reforms which would shift the burden of proof on to the plaintiff, decrease the size of damages awarded and introduce rules blocking foreigners from using English courts to fight their libel cases.

Existing rules allow foreign plaintiffs to use English courts to sue, even if the publications in question sold very few copies in Britain.

“Libel tourism is making a mockery of British justice,” Mr Clegg will say. In one case, a US academic was successfully sued for £130,000 by a Saudi businessman in an English court, even though the defamatory book sold just 23 copies in Britain over the internet.

“I am deeply concerned about the stifling effect English libel laws are having on scientific debate,” Mr Clegg will say. “Scientists must be allowed to question claims fearlessly – especially those that relate to medical care, environmental damage and public safety – if we are to protect ourselves against poor research, phoney treatments and vested corporate interests.”

He will also use the speech to criticise “super injunctions” sought and employed by companies to comprehensively gag the media from discussing sensitive issues. MPs and transparency groups were outraged last October when an injunction issued on behalf of the oil-trading company Trafigura not only blocked any reporting of the reasons for the injunction, but also sought to block any coverage of parliamentary proceedings involved in the case. “Our libel law and practice have turned a country once famed for its traditions of freedom and liberty into a legal farce where people and corporations with money can impose silence on others at will,” Mr Clegg will say. “I believe in raucous freedom of speech, not gagging orders in our courts.”

Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, has already ordered a review of the libel laws, due to be completed by mid-March. The review panel, made up of academics, lawyers and newspaper editors, will look at whether a specialist tribunal should be set up to resolve defamation cases out of court.

Straw To Consult Newspapers Over Super Injunctions

(Press Gazette) – JUSTICE SECRETARY JACK STRAW has launched a consultation with lawyers from major newspapers following the row over ‘super-injunctions’ following the Trafigura row.

Junior justice minister Bridget Prentice told MPs last week that a number of senior judges would also be involved in a consultation over court orders which ban publication of certain information and also ban reporting about the order being made.

Prentice told MPs: ‘We are very concerned that super-injunctions are being used more commonly, particularly in the area of libel and privacy.

‘The Secretary of State for Justice [Straw] has already asked senior officials in the department to discuss the matter with lawyers from the major newspapers. We are also involving the judiciary in a consultation.

‘We are looking specifically at how the use of super-injunctions has had an effect and what we therefore need to do on that.’

Prentice told MPs during a debate on 21 October she would relay MPs message that further guidelines might be needed for judiciary to the Justice Secretary and the Lord Chief Justice.

The Prime Minister told MPs earlier this month Straw would examine the use of so-called ‘super injunctions’ after the Guardian reported that it had been prevented from reporting a Parliamentary question tabled by Newcastle-under-Lyme MP Paul Farrelly, a former journalist, relating to oil company Trafigura because of an injunction obtained by the firm’s lawyers, Carter Ruck.

Prentice told MPs the advice given to the Guardian by Carter-Ruck that the newspaper would be in contempt for reporting Farrelly’s question, was incorrect.

She added: ‘I am happy to ensure that we send them a copy of Article 9 [of the Bill of Rights 1689], so that they can read and peruse it at their leisure.’

PM Pledges Action On ‘Super-Injunctions’

(Press Gazette) – JUSTICE SECRETARY JACK STRAW is to examine the use of so-called ‘super injunctions’ following the Trafigura row, the Prime Minister told MPs today.

Gordon Brown said the granting of secret injunctions, which not only banned reporting of a story but also of the existence of the ban itself was an ‘unfortunate area of the law.’

Yesterday The Guardian reported that it had been prevented from reporting a Parliamentary question relating to oil company Trafigura because of an injunction obtained by the firm’s lawyers, Carter Ruck.

Tory MP Peter Bottomley raised the issue at Prime Minister’s question time in the Commons today, saying: ‘No court should grant such an order and I intend to report them to the Law Society for asking for the injunction.’

He called for details of secret or emergency injunctions to be placed in the House of Commons library and Press Gallery and added that any such order should be reviewed the next working day at the Court of Appeal.

Brown said: ‘This is an issue where an injunction has been awarded but it has been awarded in the context where it has to remain secret and people are not told what the outcome is generally.

‘The Justice Secretary has talked to the parties concerned and is looking into this issue.’

He then told Bottomley: ‘I hope that on the basis of what you suggest progress can be made not just in this case but more generally to clear up what is an unfortunate area of the law.’

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger yesterday hailed a ‘great victory for free speech’ and said lawyers had ‘caved in’ over the order which prevented reporting of a question asked by Labour’s Paul Farrelly.

In a statement yesterday, Carter Ruck said: ‘There has never been any question of Trafigura applying for an injunction that had as its purpose the prevention of publication of any matter arising in Parliament. No such application has ever been made.

‘Nevertheless, as formulated (and as The Guardian apparently accepts) the Order would indeed have prevented The Guardian from reporting on the Parliamentary Question which had been tabled for later this week.’

Victory! Carter Ruck Caves In

(Press Gazette) – THE GUARDIAN has overturned an extraordinary injunction which banned it from reporting a question tabled by an MP in Parliament.

The paper revealed on its front page today that it had been banned from reporting the question due to: ‘Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involving proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret.’

The report prompted a revolt on the social networking site Twitter where many users pointed out that the injunction had been brought by oil traders Trafigura.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger ‘tweeted’ today: ‘Victory! Carter Ruck caves-in. No Guardian court hearing. Media can now report Paul Farrelly’s PQ about Trafigura.

‘Thanks to Twitter/all tweeters for fantastic support over past 16 hours! Great victory for free speech.’

The Parliamentary question which Trafigura tried to stop the media reporting, via lawyers Carter Ruck, was tabled by Labour MP Farrelly to justice secretary Jack Straw.

He asks Straw: ‘… what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura.’

In the same way that last night’s injunction was widely flouted online, the Minton report is also easy to find online using a search engine.