Clause 5. — (Justification.)

Part of Orders of the Day — Defamation (Amendment) Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th June 1952.

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Photo of Mr Harold Lever Mr Harold Lever , Manchester Cheetham 12:00 am, 27th June 1952

I do not want to retraverse ground which has been covered by abler people who have preceded me, but as this matter troubles quite a number of Members of the House, it might be useful to say a few brief general words as to why I regard the Clause, first, as an important one, and second, not as a mere alternative to some procedural alteration.

In spite of the delicate doubt which was cast by my hon. and learned Friend upon the wisdom of maintaining the defence of truth at full strength—although he did not commit himself to any desire to whittle away that defence—it is generally agreed that cruel as it sometimes is if it is misused, the right to print the truth about people is sacred and necessary in the public interest. That right to print the truth is protected, as far as libel actions are concerned in civil courts, by the defence known as justification, which is dealt with by the Clause.

The defence of justification, in English common law and in English good sense, has never meant that one has to prove every comma and dot of what one has spoken or printed. It means that a person has to prove that the defamatory matter is substantially true and that the sting of what he has said about a man is true. There are a number of old cases where people were called rotgut rascals and things of that kind, and it has been held, of course, that nobody was called upon to prove, strictly speaking, that the man was a rotgut rascal, whatever that might have meant at the time it was uttered.

The trouble has been that in the useless over-refinement of legal quibble, a tendency has grown up which has damaged this fundamental and sound principle of the common law defence of justification—namely, that a person must prove the substance of what he has said to be true; not every dot and comma but the substance of it. That defence has been damaged in some degree by the tendency of judges and lawyers to split up sentences and phrases and to treat what ordinary folk would very often regard as one libel, as a whole series of libels, and the defendant has been put to prove every single phrase used in the libel.