New Law Makes Suing for Libel Harder in England

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LONDON -- London's reputation as the libel capital of the world, "a town called sue," is poised to end.

A new law enacted Thursday strengthens the position of people sued for libel here and puts an end to most cases of so-called libel tourism, the practice by which powerful foreigners -- Russian oligarchs, Arab oil magnates and large corporations, among others -- have brought libel cases against authors, journalists, academics, scientists and bloggers, often based on the most tenuous of connections to England.

Under the new law, claimants wanting to sue defendants who do not live in Europe will have to prove that England is the most appropriate place for the case. This is designed to stop foreigners from suing other foreigners in English courts over, for instance, books or magazines that have sold just a handful of copies here, or Web sites that have been viewed few or even no times at all.

The new law applies only to England and Wales; Scotland and Northern Ireland have different systems.

In one of the most notorious cases, the American academic Rachel Ehrenfeld lost a suit in the High Court here against a Saudi billionaire, Khalid bin Mahfouz, after she accused him of funneling money to Al Qaeda in "Funding Evil," a book published in the United States that sold just 23 copies in England, mostly through the Internet.

After a judge ruled that she had indeed libeled Mr. Mahfouz, Ms. Ehrenfeld -- who had declined to participate in the case -- was ordered to pay more than $225,000.

The case caused several American states and the federal government to enact laws saying, essentially, that English libel laws are inconsistent with the American constitutional right to free speech and generally unenforceable in American courts.

The law passed here on Thursday does not upend the basic premise of English libel cases, that the burden of proof rests with the defendant, or the person being sued, rather than the plaintiff. But it strengthens a defendant's position in a number of ways, making it harder for aggrieved parties to sue and easier for people being sued to defend themselves.

For instance, individuals who sue will now have to prove that the speech at issue has caused, or is likely to cause, serious harm to their reputations. Corporations and other entities that sue will have to prove that they have suffered, or are likely to suffer, serious financial loss. The law also makes it harder for them to sue intermediaries like ISPs, search engines and hosts of Internet forums, focusing instead on the individuals who made the comments.

To bolster their cases, defendants in libel suits will now be able to rely on a so-called public interest defense, making the case that they published their statements in good faith, in what they believed to be the "public interest" -- whether or not the statements were true. And statements are to be judged defamatory only if they lead to actual damage to the aggrieved party.

The old laws have had a demonstrable chilling effect, with publishers, newspapers and other purveyors of speech proving reluctant to risk offending anyone likely to sue. A variety of people have been sued for libel here in recent years in cases verging on the preposterous; some defendants have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend themselves.

They include the science writer Simon Singh, who was pursued by the British Chiropractic Association after writing in The Guardian that chiropractors promoted "bogus treatments"; a British cardiologist who was sued by a company in Boston after he criticized one of its products on an American medical news site; and a professor at the University of Iceland, who was sued by an Icelandic businessman over comments he had made on the university's Web site five years earlier.

Campaigners for libel reform applauded the changes, which they said represented the first serious rewriting of English libel laws since 1843.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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