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More U.K. media outlets dodge libel verdicts, seek settlements

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  1. Libel and Privacy
Even as Congress moves to counterbalance the trans-Atlantic effects of so-called libel tourism, The Guardian reported Thursday that United Kingdom…

Even as Congress moves to counterbalance the trans-Atlantic effects of so-called libel tourism, The Guardian reported Thursday that United Kingdom media outlets are more often settling libel lawsuits in a bid to limit the financial drain of losing at trial.

A legal publication firm culled through case reports and transcripts filed in the 12 months leading up to May, finding that 61 percent of defamation cases ended with a "statement in open court," nipped before trial, The Guardian said. That’s up from less than 25 percent in the same period between 2004 and 2005.

Partly to blame, The Guardian said, is the rise of "Conditional Fee Agreements", or CFAs, in which plaintiffs’ attorneys agree not to get paid unless they win — but if they do win, they can collect as much as twice their normal rate from the defendant. For the media, that means assuming huge risk in taking a case to a jury, The Guardian said.

With libel laws structured to favor plaintiffs, saddling defendants with the task of proving the truth of offending statements, Britain is known as a hub for libel tourism: Celebrities and wealthy figures from around the globe have made a habit of suing over unfavorable publications in British courts. American lawmakers, most recently in Congress, are responding by crafting ways to bar U.S. courts from enforcing foreign libel judgments that undercut the free speech protections of the First Amendment.

One British media lawyer said in The Guardian that overall, even as publications there proliferate, fewer libel cases are being filed. But another lawyer said the experience of those media outlets who do land in court is having an impact.

"There is no doubt that the use of CFAs is having a chilling effect on the media, and the whole system needs a thorough review," attorney Caroline Kean told The Guardian.