The ins and outs of defamation law

Defamation Law – Defamation Law

English defamation law is considered to be the original foundation stone for the subsequent spread of modern libel and slander laws to the Commonwealth, the United States and the Republic of Ireland. The first use of the term libel in a legal case is reported as occurring during the ruling period of James I (1566-1625).

Defamation law is built upon the premise that people should be protected from having their reputations damaged by claims that are spoken (slander), broadcast or published (libel). For a claim to be considered to be defamation it must be false and be known by more people than simply the person making the claim and the person who is the subject of the claim.

English defamation law allows for claims of libel to be heard in the High Court. This applies to claims that are alleged to have damaged the reputation of an individual, group or organisation in a way that has negatively affected their quality of life, their business or professional career.  Actions that are considered to be slanderous are words that claim a person has committed a crime, has a disease, has been adulterous or has not carried out their professional duty to a sufficient standard.

One of the problems that defamation law runs into is trying to define the difference between someone’s negative opinions and slander or libel. The distinction here is that slander and libel are statements of purported fact, while a negative opinion is just that; an opinion.

Another interesting element of English defamation law is that the usual burden of proof is reversed. In most other kinds of legal action the defendant is presumed innocent and the prosecution have to prove their guilt. In defamation cases, however, the defendant is presumed guilty and their claims to be false, unless they can prove them to be true. There is also a difference in the burden of proof between regular citizens and public officials. A public official must prove that there was malice or intent behind the libel or slander to gain compensation, while a regular citizen musty only prove negligence.

Under English defamation law, a claim of defamation can be defended against on a number of grounds. If the defendant can prove that the statement or claim in question was actually true, was an opinion that was reasonable to have, was made in Parliament or under oath or was not aware that they were distributing information that could be seen as defamation, then the case against them will be defeated.

Since the passage of the Human Rights Act there have been a number of criticisms of English defamation law. These disputes cut right to the heart of the conflict between the freedom of the press and the freedom of individuals in society to express themselves and right of people to privacy. This is not a conflict that can easily be resolved and is likely to be rolling around for many years yet.

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