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Libel reform

In April 2008 Simon Singh published an article in the Guardian in which he explored the use of Chiropractic to treat, amongst other things, childhood asthma. The British Chiropractic Association (BCA) took issue with the article, and refused to be satisfied with an offer to print a counter to it. Instead, citing a “substantial evidence supporting the claim they make on their website that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying (Beware the spinal trap, page 26, April 19),” they decided to sue Simon personally for defamation.

Even if he won, it would likely cost Simon ¬£50,ooo, but if he lost the costs could easily be ten times that. Simon felt that the matter was one of public interest, and after taking legal advice decided to fight the case. In May 2009 the judge made a ruling that hurt Simon’s case, saying that a key statement in the article was one of fact, and not of comment. This made the case a lot harder to defend. Simon chose to go to the Court of Appeal, his least worst option, where he would argue that the judge misconstrued his article. That raised the costs even higher.

Britain is renowned as having the most libel-friendly laws in the world. It is easy for organizations to threaten individuals with a libel suit that will be expensive to win and more expensive to lose. It makes it hard even to question an organization that might be responsible for bad science. That is not something I want Britain to be famous for. Nor am I alone. Simon is being supported by a charitable organization called Sense about Science, with a web site where you can also read  full details of his case.

You can help

The best thing we can do to help is to get the political parties to make a manifesto commitment to reform libel law. A petition has been started in an attempt to raise at least 100,000 signatures, and let politicians know that we demand reform. Remember:

All that is necessary for bad science to triumph is that good politicians do nothing.

Don’t give them any excuse to do nothing. Sign the petition.

{ 5 } Comments

  1. Mark Cottle | 28 February 2010 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been meaning to reply to this post for a long time. My difficulty is I feel libel reform is a complex matter and it isn’t easy, in a succinct few sentences, to do justice to the arguments or to my thoughts on them. Once upon a time, when I was a younger and rasher sort of person, I would probably have spouted off the first ill-formed thoughts that came into my head. These days I have what is almost the opposite problem, which is that I try to think things through before acting to such an extent I often fail to get around to doing anything at all. Well I guess you’ve inspired me to get my act in gear a bit. Although I don’t fully concur with the PEN/Index proposals, I can support the bottom line – which is that something needs to be done to prevent perverse libel actions from blocking rational scientific debate and further undermining the credibility of our legal system. I have therefore put aside my unease over petitions and done as you suggested and signed the online one for the libel reform campaign. I hope others will do the same.

  2. icyjumbo | 28 February 2010 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    I perfectly understand your scruples about exactly how libel law will get reformed. I’ve noticed that these online petitions are rarely as well worded as one would like so I tend, like you have done, to think about the underlying message and whether I support that. In this case I think the underlying message that I wanted to address is the way that libel law currently favours the richer over the poorer. I’m also comforted that we can’t really predict what the outcome will be from any reform to libel law. Whatever the outcome, it is virtually guaranteed to be different from the PEN/Index’s proposal, simply because politicians and other lobbyists will get involved in the debate.

  3. Mark Cottle | 3 March 2010 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    A small piece of good news is that, according to the BBC today (see, the ceiling on the fees uplift for success in CFA cases is to be dropped from 100% to 10% next month. I’d like to see this become only the first step in a series of measures to reduce the cost of legal actions. I think the report of the Commons culture, media and sport committee contains some sensible suggestions in that direction.

    As a footnote, my view has always been that the costs and other obstackes which stand in the way of easy and equal access to justice are a broader issue which blight the whole of our legal system and are not restricted to defamation cases. Metaphorically speaking, I think libel costs are the hideous tip of a fetid iceberg.

  4. Mark Cottle | 3 April 2010 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Another piece of good news

    Amid the debate about current problems we need to recognise that UK defamation law contains much that is sound and that courts do often manage to apply it right in the end. The big trouble, of course, is the stupid level of costs – and that is not so much down to libel law per se as to the arcane business rules and practices of courts and lawyers.

  5. icyjumbo | 3 April 2010 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I saw this. It’s still an issue, however, because the result it about how the case should be tried, not a verdict on the case. There will be more costs, unfortunately. On the other hand, this case has achieved such publicity that I’m sure he’ll get help covering the remaining costs. There’s always the spectre of the Supreme Court overturning the Lords’ decision, although that seems pretty remote to me.

    As for applying the law correctly, do you really think the BCA would have brought the case if the level of costs had been more reasonable in the first place? I wonder why they chose to forgo suing The Guardian as well as Singh, for example. Pretty egregious, don’t you think? I just hope they come out of this worse than they went in. They have done so in my eyes.

    Sorry for the rant. This one just makes me mad. I just wish costs could be awarded against them in the event that they lose.