Long-needed reform of libel laws takes huge step forward

Following Jack Straw's announcement that libel lawyers' "success" fees would be cut by 90 per cent, campaigners for libel reform say it's a big step forward.

There is now increasing momentum and appetite for wholesale reform of English libel law, with Labour making serious moves for reform in the increasingly short time left before the election. Last night, Justice Secretary Jack Straw announced that he intended to cut significantly – by up to 90 per cent – the amount that lawyers can claim in ‘success fees’ on conditional fee arrangements (CFAs), otherwise known as ‘no win, no fee’ deals.

He said:

“Lawyers need to recover their costs and be rewarded for their efforts and the risks they undertake when providing people with access to justice in “no win, no fee” cases. But evidence suggests that the regular doubling of fees that currently takes place is simply not justified and the balance of costs between claimant and defendant needs to be reconsidered.”

As it stands, defendants in libel trials face not just their own costs, but the costs of the claimant which under a CFA are doubled (the success fee) and often the claimant’s ATE (After The Event insurance) – which can be another 60 per cent of the claimant’s costs again. This makes defending a libel action against an opponent with a CFA and ATE nearly 400 per cent as costly as it would be under normal circumstances.

Recognising this, campaigners English PEN and Index on Censorship’s report on libel law, “Free Speech is Not for Sale”, recommended a substantial cut in the cost of libel cases, allowing greater access to justice for both claimants and defendants.

The Libel Reform Campaign, a coalition of Index on Censorship, English PEN and Sense About Science, is backed by Left Foot Forward.

• More than 12,500 people have signed the online petition; to sign visit libelreform.org/sign

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