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 doubt whether my hon. Friend would find a word I have ever spoken in my adult years against the British jury. I am a convinced believer in the British jury, in criminal and in civil cases. My hon. Friend will not find a line in any of my argument which is based on a distrust of the jury. The reason why I moved the other Clause about unintentional defamation, which commended itself to the House, is that I think the law as it stood was bad; and that was the universal view of the Porter Committee and the universal view of the Committee of the House which considered it—at any rate, as far as it was expressed by vote. I hope I shall never say anything which casts doubt upon the wisdom of retaining the jury system in civil and in criminal cases, and I have not done so in connection with earlier Clauses.

It is quite untrue to think that the Clause raises the danger for the derelict character—the man who is down—and that people are being encouraged to shoot at him with impunity. My hon. and learned Friend must realise that there is nothing to stop the advocate of the injured man pointing out to the jury, as has so often been pointed out in cases of this kind, that the jury are dealing with a man whose character is defective and that for that reason he may require protection more than a man who is of very strong character.

My hon. and learned Friend should place a little more confidence in the ability of the advocate to draw the attention of the court to these points and in the ability of the juries and judges to see his point for themselves: that defective characters must not be shot at by reckless people anxious to injure them and who think that they can escape liability under the Clause. There is enough good sense and good law in the courts to protect people from those sorts of dangers.

I urge upon my hon. and learned Friend that the real occasion when the Clause would have effect is when, in pursuance of a public duty, some person—not necessarily a newspaper, but very often a newspaper—is exposing a rogue who is preying upon the public. It may be necessary in order to expose that rogue to elaborate 20 or 30 detailed charges of dishonesty, and it may be that at the time of trial only 29 of those 30 charges could be proved.

It is essential that the rogue should not be whitewashed in the action. It is essential that the substantial truth of the allegations printed should act as a defence. In those circumstances we ought to have a care that by over-meticulous and academic regard for the rights of rogues—I am not suggesting that they should be defenceless and should be besmirched recklessly—we do not inhibit a good deal of healthy expositions of them from being published for the protection of the public.

In those circumstances, I urge the House to preserve the Clause, which is a commonsense Clause and which reestablishes with great clarity the fundamental principle of English law as far as the defence of truth is concerned in a libel action—namely, that the substantial truth or sting of the libel should be justified by the defendant—and to prevent that defence from being endangered by over-refinement.