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Reforming UK Libel and Slander Law

In 2013, new legislation was passed to reform the UK’s defamation laws, which had earned London the nickname of ‘a town named Sue’.

One of the previous weaknesses of our defamation laws had been their availability to so-called “libel tourists”, who sued publishers under UK law despite the cases having at best tenuous links to the country.

One of the more high-profile cases concerned accusations of funding terrorism against Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz by American academic Rachel Ehrenfeld. Although the book in question was published in the United States and sold a mere 23 copies in England, the High Court found Ehrenfeld guilty of libel and ordered her to pay more than $225,000.

However, Section 9 of the new Defamation Act requires that England and Wales is “clearly the most appropriate place” for the case to be heard if the person who made the statement does not live in the EU, Norway, Switzerland or Iceland.

Although the Act did not change one of the most oft-bemoaned aspects of UK defamation law, that the burden of proof rests on the defendant, it does now require individuals to demonstrate that they have suffered, or are likely to suffer, ‘serious’ harm to their reputation as a result of the comments, and for businesses to show that they have suffered, or are likely to suffer, serious financial loss.

The Act also introduced a number of new defences to defamation, taking the place of those previously existing. The truth defence replaced justification, the honest opinion defence replaced fair comment, and the ‘publication on matter of public interest’ defence replaces the Reynolds defence, or qualified privilege.

The Act also gave greater protection to the operators of websites, making it a defence to defamation that a comment was posted by someone other than themselves.