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British government considers reigning in libel costs

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  1. Libel and Privacy
The British government is weighing legislative changes aimed at cutting back on the potentially exorbitant costs news outlets face in libel litigation there, the…

The British government is weighing legislative changes aimed at cutting back on the potentially exorbitant costs news outlets face in libel litigation there, the Guardian reports.

Media lawyer Tony Jaffa told the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee of the House of Commons at a hearing this week, "I cannot see a regional newspaper ever defending themselves in a claim again." Plaintiffs’ lawyers can charge up to twice their hourly rate if they win, and the committee was reportedly told that news outlets are forking over hundreds of thousands of pounds in cases that only amount to a few thousand in actual damages.

A libel specialist countered that defendants can avoid heftier payouts by resolving a suit within 14 days, the Guardian said. 

Far more than its American equivalent, libel law in Britain is structured in favor of plaintiffs: Even beyond the system of awarding fees, the burden in a British court is on defendants to prove the veracity of what they published or broadcast. In America, by contrast, plaintiffs must prove the words at issue were false. Conflict has recently arisen between the two systems as plaintiffs, particularly celebrities and wealthy people, opt to file suit in the United Kingdom against American authors — a practice dubbed "libel tourism."

Some American lawmakers are looking for ways to protect American authors, principally by forbidding U.S. courts from enforcing libel judgments that would undermine First Amendment values.

But the Guardian reports the British government may take steps to contain at least the outsize financial onus on media defendants in many libel cases. A University of Oxford study found that such suits in the U.K. are 140 times more expensive than in other European countries, the paper said, and the cases "may not be compatible with human rights legislation."

"Excessive costs and their threat may force defendants to settle unwarranted claims," Ministry of Justice minister Bridget Prentice said, according to the Guardian. The government wants to "bring more effective cost control to litigation in defamation proceedings and to ensure that costs in this area are more proportionate and reasonable. . . . We need to ensure that people’s right to freedom of expression is not infringed, and media organisations continue to report on matters of public concern."