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Orders of the Day — Defamation Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:09 pm on 21st May 1996.

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Photo of Mr Alex Carlile Mr Alex Carlile , Montgomery 10:09 pm, 21st May 1996

I am pleased that, after that ramble across Bodmin moor, during which the beast of Bolsover was temporarily transmogrified into the beast of Bodmin, I can resume the speech that was interrupted at 7 o'clock. At that time, if my memory serves, I was talking about clause 14 and the Hoffmann amendment. Lord Hoffmann himself did not vote for his amendment and I suggest that it went further than is necessary to achieve the end desired by the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) in his defamation action against The Guardian and by any other hon. Members who might find themselves in a similar position because of parliamentary privilege.

I suggest that there is an alternative way to deal with the problem, which would not have the effect of handing over decisions on privilege from the House itself to individual Members of the House. The Hoffmann amendment should be altered in due course so that the decision-making power on the waiving of privilege would be held by the Committee dealing with privilege in each House of Parliament.

I propose to make some comments on other clauses, and I would be grateful for the Parliamentary Secretary's observations, either tonight or in due course. Clauses 5 and 6 deal with time limits and we have heard several submissions to the House on that subject, including one from the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) who, as we have discovered, is the in-House expert in such matters. He said that a 12-month time limit may be too short—I respectfully agree—and he gave the good example of a potential plaintiff who has to await the end of police disciplinary proceedings. I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman would agree that if we consider the law on the extension of time for the service of writs in personal injury actions, we see that the law can be unpredictable. It would be far better to have a clear statutory definition of the time limit, but it should be longer than one year.

In any event, if the time limit is reduced to one year, it will create an anomaly between the law of England and Wales and the law of Scotland. I am glad to see that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) in his place because he has experience of such matters. I am advised that the time limit in Scotland remains three years. If the time limit in Scotland is three years and the limit in England and Wales is one year, that is likely to lead to what is nowadays called forum shopping in cases in which proceedings are not brought timeously in England and Wales, or in Northern Ireland, to which the one-year limit would also apply.

These days, most publication is UK-wide, although generally the burden of publication is in one of the jurisdictions. Although private international law addresses some of the problems that might arise, it does not meet them all. I am told that the doomsday scenario among Scottish lawyers—but I find it hard to believe that Scottish lawyers are reluctant to earn any fees that might result—is that libel lawyers in London might use the Scottish courts as a forum in which to start proceedings that would otherwise be time-barred. It would make us look rather foolish if cases could be brought in Scotland on the same facts in the same publication after a time bar had run out in England. The case for a shared time bar must be strong.