I was delighted to see Simon Singh's victory at the Court of Appeal last week, after a massively expensive, two-year fight to defend his right to contest the scientific opinion of the British Chiropractic Association. As he noted himself, the fact that the judges "endorsed the view that a so-called comment defence should be adequate for scientific and other articles on matters of public interest" made happy reading for all those wishing to see some common sense brought to bear on the UK's libel laws. As an organisation committed to exposing matters of great public interest, we hope that this ruling will indeed extend beyond health and science to all issues which fit this description.
Less happily this month, a handful of MPs have successfully blocked Jack Straw's proposal to reduce success fees for lawyers operating on a ‘no-win, no-fee' basis from 100% of costs awarded to 10%. The group of four Labour rebels, led by Tom Watson MP, stopped the legislation, citing concerns that the changes would prevent ordinary constituents being able to defend their privacy affordably. Global Witness wholeheartedly supports this principle - but has seen it systematically abused by the rich, powerful and very often guilty, who can well afford to pay their lawyers, but are happy to take advantage of the no win-no fee system which can make mounting a defence prohibitively expensive - thereby chilling freedom of speech. The proposed reduction would limit the unjustifiably high fees currently charged by predatory lawyers to defend private and often highly dubious interests.
The matter is now due for review after the election. Given that these reforms received broad cross-party support prior to the above setback, Global Witness hopes that the matter will be given the urgent attention it deserves by the new parliament. All three major parties have made encouraging noises on this issue - we must pressure them to make good on these promises in their manifestos. We can all make our voice heard on this issue by signing up to the Libel Reform Campaign and calling for a return to common sense in Britain's libel laws.
Charmian Gooch, Founding Director.