New Clause 9 - Removal of allegedly defamatory material
Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland, Labour)
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
The new clause is pretty easy to understand. I tabled it at the same time as some amendments to clause 5, which is why it refers particularly to websites, but the wording means that it would cover allegedly defamatory statements in newspapers as well.
My major concern is that it would be wrong if the removal of material and/or the publication of an apology meant that later a person could not sue and get financial recompense. That would have a perverse effect, because in the small set of clearest, open-shut cases—where the defendant immediately realises that they what they did was defamatory and is prepared to issue an apology—the offended person could not then subsequently pursue financial redress. That is all the new clause aims to address.
Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South, Labour)
I commend my hon. Friend for proposing the new clause. Is it not also true that although the person operating the website could take the material down immediately, damage could already have been done to a reputation as a result of the material, whether it was there for six months or just a couple of weeks?
Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland, Labour)
That is absolutely right. When the Minister summed up the debate on clause 5, I took him to say that the removal of material put on websites would not preclude people from taking a libel action, but as the new clause covers a wider area, will he confirm that point? Will he also explain the position in relation to newspapers when apologies are made or notices given, and how that relates to clause 12 and the PCC’s successor?
Jonathan Djanogly (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (HM Courts Service and Legal Aid), Justice; Huntingdon, Conservative)
New clause 9 provides that the removal of allegedly defamatory material from a website and the publication of apologies and corrections shall not prevent a claimant from bringing an action for defamation.
As the law stands, there is nothing to prevent a claimant from bringing a defamation action in relation to material that was posted on a website, even after it has been removed, in respect of the damage to reputation that was caused while the material was available. I confirm to the hon. Lady that there is nothing in clause 5 or elsewhere in the Bill that will change that position in relation to bringing an action against the author of the defamatory statement. Clause 5 will provide that as long as the website operator did not post the statement in question and has followed the process as prescribed, it will be protected from liability. We think that that is the right approach.
New clause 9 also refers to the publication of apologies and corrections. It conflicts with the offer of amends procedure set out in sections 2 to 4 of the Defamation Act 1996, which provides an effective means of resolving matters where the publisher accepts that he is in the wrong. Under that procedure, a person who has published an allegedly defamatory statement can make an offer of amends in the form of a correction, apology and, where appropriate, a payment of compensation. Section 3 of the 1996 Act provides that if a person accepts an offer of amends, he cannot bring or continue defamation proceedings about the publication in question against the person making the offer. He can, however, seek a court order to require the person making the offer to fulfil its terms, if that proves necessary.
The new clause is in direct conflict with the provisions in the 1996 Act, as it provides that a claimant can bring an action regardless of the fact that an apology and correction have been provided. There is broad consensus that the offer of amends procedure is working well and does not need alteration. We therefore do not think that a change along the lines proposed by the hon. Lady is necessary or appropriate. On that basis, I hope that she will agree to withdraw new clause 9.
Given that this is probably the last time that I am going to speak in the Committee, Mr Havard, may I—