Page last updated at 19:39 GMT, Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Straw cuts success charge in no-win, no-fee libel cases

Jack Straw
Mr Straw said the changes would help protect British democracy

Justice Secretary Jack Straw is to cut the "success fees" lawyers can charge in defamation cases to reduce "disproportionate" legal bills.

He said lawyers operating no-win, no-fee conditional fee agreements must cut their maximum charges from 100% to 10%.

Media groups say current laws stifle freedom of expression by forcing editors to avoid stories because of the risks of highly expensive libel action.

The changes will take effect in April and follow a Justice Ministry review.

'Swift solution'

Mr Straw said cutting the success fees would help level the playing field so scientists, journalists and writers could publish articles in the public interest without incurring "such disproportionate legal bills".

Lawyers are currently able to double their fees under "no-win, no-fee" agreements by claiming the success fee of up to 100% on top of their normal fee, payable by the losing party.

Civil law on defamation covers both libel (published) and slander (spoken)
To be defamed means the statement exposed claimant to hatred, ridicule or contempt; caused them to be shunned; lowered them in the minds of "right-minded" citizens; disparaged them in their business, office, trade or profession
Claimant has to prove material is defamatory and refers to them, but not that it was false. Burden is on defendant to offer a defence
Defendant has to prove either the material was true; was fair comment made honestly in the public interest; was reported correctly from Parliament or court and is immune from liability; was reported, without malice, from other protected arenas such as a press conference; that amends have been made and accepted

Mr Straw's changes were introduced in a Statutory Order laid in Parliament.

"This is particularly important for ensuring open scientific exchange and protecting the future of our regional media, who have small budgets but play a large role in our democracy," Mr Straw said.

He said the system would be re-balanced so the press could afford to defend defamation cases, while those who felt they had been defamed would still get access to justice.

"This is a swift solution to an immediate problem," Mr Straw added.

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said it was a sensible and much needed reform that would help reduce the chilling effect of libel laws on journalism.

He said it would affect all levels of the media from the smallest local paper to the BBC.

"It will also help scientists and doctors conduct serious debate about issues that could save lives," he added.

Media organisations say editors have had to settle cases they might have been able to defend simply to avoid large costs.

They say the costs in defamation cases are wildly disproportionate to the damages a successful claimant might win.

Mr Straw's announcement follows a consultation on controlling costs in libel proceedings which began in January.

He said the move would go a long way to secure the freedom of scientific exchange and Britain's tradition of investigative journalism "so fundamental to the protection of our democracy".

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