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Lester libel bill published

***Update: The Government announce their own bill for libel reform***

Justice Minister Lord McNally announced on Friday 9th July that the Government will publish a Bill to reform the libel laws early in the new year. Watch the second reading debate of Lord Lester of Herne Hill's Private Member's Defamation Bill from the House of Lords, where the Government made the announcement.

Read Lord Lester's Defamation Bill.

Read Lord Lester's explanatory notes to his Defamation Bill

lord lester defamation billLord Lester's Defamation Bill is the first attempt in over a century to redraft libel laws that are unfair, internationally criticised and against the public interest. Our libel laws are unnecessarily complicated and unduly costly, defences are uncertain and narrow and the laws haven't kept up with the information age. They are damaging freedom of expression and the open exchange of information worldwide.

John Kampfner, CEO Index on Censorship said: "Today the government listened to the 52,000 people who backed the English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science campaign to redesign our libel laws and have committed, for the first time in a century, to wholesale reform. We are delighted, but obviously we’ll need to see how bold the government will be – they must stop libel tourism, cut the obscene legal costs involved and give cast iron protections to free speech."

Jonathan Heawood, English PEN said: "Until the Libel Reform Bill is actually passed, the right to free speech in this country will be conditional on writers or scientists having deep pockets or a willingness to fight for years through the Courts. It should no longer be a matter for judges but Parliamentarians should decide on how we balance free expression and reputation."

Tracey Brown, Sense About Science said: "Lord Lester's Bill is the first time in over a century that there has been a case for fundamental reform before Parliament. We are delighted that the Government has responded. The Libel Reform Campaign, supported by over 50,000 people and many leading commentators, will continue doing all we can to ensure that the Minister's response to the debate today is translated into meaningful change in the lives of bloggers, science writer, NGOs and small publications facing threats and bankruptcy under the current laws."

Science writer Simon Singh, who was sued for libel in 2008 said: "Today's Government commitment to change the law by the next parliament will be welcomed by everyone who currently feels gagged by the libel law, including doctors, science journalists and academic journals. Honest and hardworking writers currently face ruin if they dare defend themselves from threats of libel action, because the libel law is so complicated, costly and unfair. Hence, those who have important information, criticisms and concerns don’t dare to publish and are silenced. Today the Government appeared to recognise the problem and in particular made a solid commitment to a public interest defence."

The libel laws have been exposed as unjust

English PEN and Index on Censorship's Free Speech is not For Sale report made 10 recommendations for fairer laws; the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee report on Press Standards Privacy and Libel called for far reaching reforms; a Ministry of Justice report said the law needs reforming in the public interest.

There is a public outcry about the chill on free speech

Over 500 commentators, comedians, poets and authors have spoken out and over 52,000 people have signed the libel reform campaign petition. Fifty organisations including Royal Medical Colleges, human rights NGOs, medical and science bodies, authors, bloggers, publishers and media and law organisations have called for reform. Hundreds of people have reported threats of libel action leading them to remove articles, blogs, reviews, academic papers, reports and books. Vital issues of public interest are affected including drug safety, human rights abuses and corporate behaviour.

There is widespread Parliamentary support for reform. The majority of eligible MPs signed up to an EDM supporting libel law reform.

There were general election manifesto commitments to reform the libel laws from the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour.

There is a coalition Government promise to reform the libel laws.

Now it's time to change the law!

In light of Lord Lester's Bill, the Libel Reform Campaign is asking: will the Government now make clear its plans for reform? Will it support, adopt or develop this Bill?

Jonathan Heawood Director, English PEN said: "The current libel laws give international bullies licence to silence criticism. Until we have a clear public interest defence human rights activists, NGOs, authors, publishers, scientists and bloggers will continue to be threatened and sued."

John Kampfner Chief Executive, Index on Censorship said: "There have been piecemeal reforms to our libel laws before but the big problems have not been resolved. The Duke of Brunswick ruling predates the lightbulb, but is still in use today to silence online debate. That is why we welcome this attempt to modernise the libel laws for the internet age."

Tracey Brown Managing Director, Sense About Science said: "With every week that passes, we are contacted by yet more writers and researchers who have been threatened with libel action. In the face of high costs and weak defences, they withdraw their articles, hold back their material from public discussion and, in the end, stop asking vital questions of public interest. Lord Lester's Bill should be considered urgently by the Government."

Dr Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat former MP who chaired the cross-party group for manifesto commitments for libel reform said: "Libel law reform is needed to prevent the chilling of comment which is in the public interest. It is therefore essential for scientists and academics and giving their opinion in good faith and responsibly, and their publishers, to know at the time of publication that they will have an effective defence against an unjustified libel plaintiff. Lord Lester's skilfully crafted bill is one way of doing that and also offers the Government a vehicle for legislation following their review."

Media Coverage

The Times Libel must be rebalanced in the scales of justice

The Today program Interview with Anthony Lester

The Telegraph Reform of our libel law is long overdue

Times leader article Redressing the Balance

The Times Lord Lester publishes bill to reform "archaic" libel laws

The Daily Mail Peer's plan to shake up our costly libel industry

The Sunday Times Free speech - the gloves are off

The Sunday Times Time to pick up the pace on libel reform

The Guardian Libel reform forces its way up the political agenda

Radio 4 Thought for the Day

The Independent Plans to reform 'archaic' libel laws published

Times Higher Education Lib Dem peer to launch libel reform bill

The Guardian John Kampfner v Korieh Duodu

The Economist Improving a reputation: England's strict libel laws face a shake-up

The Guardian Lester publishes his libel reform bill - now what happens?

New Scientist Libel reform is on track in UK

Nature online Lord Lester looks to limit libel litigation

The Seattle Times British lawmaker proposes libel law reform bill