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Orders of the Day — Defamation Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:23 pm on 21st May 1996.

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Photo of Mrs Teresa Gorman Mrs Teresa Gorman , Billericay 10:23 pm, 21st May 1996

In a House that, as usual, seems to be stuffed with members of the legal profession, it is slightly intimidating for a lay person such as myself to contribute to the debate. I feel already their blood rising when they see someone standing not exactly in the box, but in a sort of court; they are waiting just to get their teeth into what I am about to say.

I want to say only three things. One is about the plaintiff being given a proper right of reply should they be libelled. Clause 2(4) mentions an opportunity to do that in an offer to make amends. Will the Minister consider building into the Bill a provision that, when newspapers make an apology, as they sometimes offer to do when settling out of court, they should have to make it as prominent as the original libel, and—possibly—reproduce in its entirety the apology that they made in court?

In my experience, newspapers usually fillet the large slice of humble pie that they have had to eat. It is reduced to a relatively small piece of pie that they tend to poke away in some obscure part of the newspaper. That is extremely annoying to the person who has been libelled. They do not feel that they have had a fair showing in the paper.

A line in a popular song says, "It ain't what you do do, it's more what you don't do." My second point is that the Bill don't do justice to the fact that newspapers can offset all their costs in actions, whereas plaintiffs have to pay out of their net income. That is totally wrong. Newspapers offset not only their legal costs and VAT, but are often insured—partly at least—against the award that may be made against them. Although it is not the place of my hon. Friend the Minister, the Bill's tax implications should be seriously considered.

An individual, not the newspaper as an institution, should be held responsible for the libel. There is something to be said for newspaper editors being held partially liable. Unless they are hit in their own pockets, they will not have any incentive to act otherwise—not even to make their own staff check the details of what they are about to print. We all know that stories go to print without the person whom they are about to traduce being contacted.

The third thing missing in the Bill, not surprisingly, is any reference to the gouging fees that the legal profession charges people who have to go to court to defend themselves. I admit that, on occasions, some of my hon. Friends have assisted me. Lord Williams said that he did not support an amendment to the Bill in another place on the basis that scales are often uneven in defamation cases—which is absolutely true—where the plaintiff is a private person who cannot get legal aid and the defendant is often a wealthy corporation.

I would love it if we could incorporate something in the Bill to address the fact that plaintiffs who cannot get legal aid can hardly find a barrister to do the job for less than £300 or £400 an hour. In fact, silks charge about £1,000 an hour, which is simply appalling. [Interruption.] That is certainly the case in London libel courts.

In Committee—where I very much hope that I shall have the opportunity to speak—I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will bear it in mind that we should be trying to establish a level playing field on both sides of a libel action. At the moment, the scales are loaded in favour of newspapers, which is why there is so much discontent about how defamation laws in this country work. In Committee, we must try to strike a balance.