Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Orders of the Day — Defamation Bill [Lords]

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

Alert me about debates like this

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

If the hon. Gentleman had been listening earlier, he would have heard me make it clear that I support his wish to have his case tried. Does the hon. Gentleman wish to intervene? Many hon. Members would like to see the hon. Gentleman's case tried, and I am one of them.

My point is that clause 9(2) creates a new spectre for the press which is the drafting and placing in newspapers of certain forms of statement by judges. That may be one step too far against the freedom of the press. There are certain circumstances in which the adage, "Publish and be damned" has some validity. The House should hesitate before it goes down the road of judge-drafted apologies, placed in a form directed by the judge and in a place in a newspaper directed by the judge. No doubt, we shall return to that discussion.

Evidence of convictions and character was raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Fife, North-East. It is dealt with in clauses 12 and 13. Clause 13 plainly gives newspapers the opportunity to rake up dirt about employment that was not known at the time of the defamation and that was sought only after an action was started. I have been involved professionally not in defamation cases, but in other cases where expensive private investigators have been sent to rake up dirt on people. The way in which they do so is extremely intrusive. We heard some illustrations earlier. They usually start with the dustbins and go downwards from there. We should hesitate before permitting such activity to take place.

Furthermore, as my hon. and learned Friend intimated, we may allow that to happen in England, but the law of Scotland will remain different. The rule in Scott v. Sampson will continue to be in force in Scotland, whereas it will be abolished in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The present law in Scotland allows a dishonest pursuer, as they call him there, or plaintiff, as we call him here, to protect his reputation in court. The judge or jury is not entitled to know that, in truth, he is a dishonest person or a person of bad character. The defence is not allowed to introduce evidence to that effect. The likes of, let us say, the late Robert Maxwell have made much use of those provisions to conceal their true character from the courts.

The Bill permits a disparity between England, Wales and Northern Ireland and Scotland. That will encourage forum shopping because, plainly, plaintiffs who feel vulnerable as to their character will start their action, if they possibly can, in Scotland. What is more, as I understand it, in Scotland, they would be able to insist on a jury trial. I see my hon. and learned Friend shaking his head. I ask him to sort that one out with the Scottish Media Lawyers Society when he is next in Edinburgh. There is, however, an anomaly between English and Scottish law. I urge the Minister to resolve it before the Bill is finalised.

Apart from clause 14, which causes great anxiety, and about which the House has heard from me and other hon. Members, the Bill is useful and can be turned into a tidying-up and reform of the law of defamation. That will make it simpler and give more people access to the courts, although still leaving many way outside the financial prospect of bringing an action for libel or slander.

I hope that we shall be permitted to have a full debate on the Hoffmann amendment on the Floor of the House, that we will be able to offer alternatives for debate by the House and that it will not, in any sense, be a whipped debate. There are fairly ugly rumours and suspicions that, in the House of Lords, there was an unofficial whip on the Hoffmann amendment—certainly a great deal of encouragement—and that the neutrality that the Government contend that there was, was somewhat artificial. If that is so, I hope that we will not have a repeat performance when the House considers the matter during later proceedings on the Bill.