At last, a tiny piece of good news for free speech from England and Wales: the Defamation Act 2013 goes into effect tomorrow, and will make it substantially harder for rich, powerful people to sue their critics in the UK. The new law requires that plaintiffs show "serious harm" in order to bring a suit. It also protects academic and scientific publications (an important issue since the British Chiropractic Association sued Simon Singh for publishing a critical scientific review of chiropractic). It adds a defense on the basis of a good-faith belief that publication is in the public interest.
Perhaps most importantly, it tightens up the "libel tourism" rules that allowed corrupt overseas dictators and oligarchs to sue news outlets based outside the UK in a UK court, merely by showing that someone in the UK read the disputed article; and it establishes a "single publication" rule to stop publishers from being sued multiple times over the same disclosure.
However, Northern Ireland has not adopted these reforms; English PEN's Jo Glanville points out that this creates a huge loophole for people who want to bring baseless libel claims in the UK — they can just sue in an NI court.
Mike Harris, of the campaign, said: "The Defamation Act was intended by politicians to end the chill from the archaic libel laws of England and Wales.
"It's taken four years, support from 60,000 people and a cross-party consensus to get to where we are today.
"We hope the judiciary will take note, and that in the future open debate on matters in the public interest will not be chilled by litigious oligarchs or corporations."
He added: "The Defamation Act is good news for free speech.
"We hope it can be used as a template for reform of the law in other countries where all too often journalists and scientists find themselves fined huge sums for speaking out against corruption and malpractice," he said.