Britain’s absurdly unjust libel laws represent the biggest daily chill on free speech in the UK, says Jo Glanville ,editor of Index on Censorship and organiser of the Human Rights and Global Responses session at the Convention, in an important piece in today’s Guardian. The mere threat of legal action by wealthy individuals concerned about their privacy and public reputation is enough to inhibit publication. And it’s not just big media players who suffer; NGOs like Human Rights Watch involved in exposing corruption are constantly threatened by libel action. Defending the right to publish through the courts is simply not an option for most publishers, as Jo says.
The use of “no win no fee” (conditional fee agreements, or CFAs) has turned libel courts into casinos. CFAs were introduced in 1995 to ensure broader access to justice. But under this system lawyers can charge a 100% uplift on their fees, creating an absurd situation where legal costs can be 100 times the damages awarded.
A recent study by the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at Oxford University revealed the astonishing fact that the cost of libel litigation in England and Wales is 140 times the average elsewhere in Europe. The introduction of CFAs has clearly had the unforeseen effect of limiting the exercise of freedom of expression in the public interest – and decreasing access to justice for groups that would be ruined by legal action.
The Mirror is apparently making the case to the European Court of Human Rights that ”no win no fee” is incompatible with the right to freedom of speech under article 10 of the convention on human rights. English PEN and Index on Censorship (who both supported sessions at the Convention) are submitting evidence to the court in Strasbourg.
If you’re interested in the discussion around libel laws and the threat they pose to free speech you should check out the video of the Press Freedom session which featured Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, Nick Cohen, Andrew Gilligan and Fatima Bhutto. The UK’s insidious libel laws, especially the practice of “libel tourism” whereby wealthy foreign individuals sue in British courts which are more likely to produce favourable outcomes than jurisdictions which protect free speech, really ought to be a source of national shame for us (listen for example to Nick Cohen talking about the case of Roman Polanski - accused of raping a 13 year old girl – whose case the Law Lords accepted even though he wasn’t able to step foot in the UK for fear of being arrested) .
Let’s hope that something comes from all this activity and that the public can look beyond their hostility to the press to see that an important public good is at stake. Good luck to the Mirror with their case.
(hat-tip Martin Bright)