Libel reform – a letter to my MP

May 13, 2010

A number of people (including myself) appear to have doubts about my ability to do the things I say I’m going to do. For example, a certain young lady has every right to be dubious about the continued non-appearance of an application to do some stats processing that I promised to write for her ages ago (it is, however, nearly finished). My ongoing project (2 years and counting) to convert my CD collection into MP3s has so far failed to produce a single MP3, though it has produced a veritable forest of XML files and the amused condescension of my coding friends. So when, in the first post on this blog, I asserted confidently that my MP would soon be receiving a letter on the importance of libel reform, people who know me would have been entirely justified in voicing a certain skepticism about my resolve.

But you may cease your mockery – my MP will shortly be receiving the following letter, which is currently sitting next to me in a stamped addressed envelope which I’ll be posting about 5 minutes after posting this. I’ll report back if it gets a response.

Dear Chris White,

Before I begin, I would like to offer my congratulations to you on winning the seat of Warwick and Leamington.

Late last year on the eve of a Commons debate on libel reform, I wrote to your predecessor, James Plaskitt, to express my concern at the libel action brought at the time by the British Chiropractic Association against the journalist and author Simon Singh. A copy of the text of that letter is appended.

I don’t know whether you were following the case, but following a ruling from the Court of Appeal it became apparent that Singh would be permitted to use a defence of fair comment or “honest opinion”. Shortly thereafter, the BCA threw in the towel. On the face of it, this seems like a happy ending – justice was, in the end, done. However, it does nothing to change the following facts:

  1. Simon Singh was obliged to devote two years of his life and risk a substantial amount of money in the process of defending the case. Although he ultimately prevailed, this was largely because he could afford to go through the process – someone with fewer resources might have given up much earlier when the outcome was far more uncertain. This outcome would not have been in the public interest.
  2. England has some of the most plaintiff-friendly libel laws in the world, hence its popularity as a destination for so-called ‘libel tourists’. A selection of disturbing legal actions is available at http://libelreform.org/who-is-silenced – the case of Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz v Rachel Ehrenfeld is a particularly good example of the problem.
  3. Despite the Singh case and the enlightened ruling of the Court of Appeal (essentially that scientific disputes must be resolved by scientific arguments, not legal ones), away from the limelight there are other ongoing libel actions which appear to have been brought in an attempt to silence legitimate discussion. See, for example, the case brought by NMT Medical Inc against Dr Peter Wilmshurst – http://bit.ly/zMkdJ
  4. At least part of the problem lies with Conditional Fee Agreements (CFAs), which are the devices which enable lawyers to take on cases on a ‘no win no fee’ basis – if they win, they are allowed to bill the losing side for their fees plus an ‘uplift’ of anything up to 100%. Although these are supposed to make bringing a libel case an affordable option for the less well off, in practice the cases are brought by the well-heeled, and enable their lawyers to intimidate their opponents into giving up (rather than risking an astronomical legal bill if they lose). Jack of Kent explains the problem in more detail at http://bit.ly/afawhl

Only today, a libel case (Kaschke v Osler) has been thrown out for Abuse of Process. Once again, a good result, but it doesn’t obscure the fact that the defendant has had to endure two years of stress and the risk of bankruptcy for a case which should never have been allowed to be brought and, had he given up at an earlier stage, would have resulted in the triumph of a bully over her accuser. The case of Matthias Rath and The Guardian (mentioned below in copy of the letter I sent to James Plaskitt) follows a similar pattern – the defendant is obliged to expend a great deal of time and money preparing a defence to a libel action which is ultimately without merit

In conclusion then, I would like to express my hope that, in addition to working in the best interests of this fine constituency as I’m sure you will, you will add your support to the growing cross-party consensus on the need for libel reform. Our libel laws seem far too open to abuse by people determined to silence legitimate criticism. This is not in the public interest, and it must stop.

Details of the Kaschke case may be found at Jack of Kent’s blog http://jackofkent.blogspot.com/ and information about libel reform generally may be found at http://libelreform.org/

Yours sincerely…

Here is the text of the letter that I sent to James Plaskitt on 20th October 2009:

I understand that there is to be a debate in parliament tomorrow on the subject of libel reform.

As you may be aware, the journalist Simon Singh recently wrote a comment piece in which he criticised the British Chiropractic Association for promoting bogus treatments. The BCA could have responded very simply, by producing some good quality evidence that their treatments work, in which case Mr Singh would no doubt have apologised. Instead, they chose to sue him for libel.

A similar event occurred some years ago when Ben Goldacre criticised vitamin salesman Matthias Rath in the Guardian, which subsequently found itself the subject of a lawsuit from Mr Rath (eventually dropped, but not before leaving Dr Goldacre substantially out of pocket).

The use of libel law to suppress scientific criticism in this way is a disturbing trend, and I would like to add my voice to those who believe that libel law requires urgent reform to prevent these sorts of abuses from happening again. I believe that it is vital for our future that scientific issues can be debated openly on the basis of evidence without fear of a libel suit. Otherwise, I fear that important issues may be ‘settled’ in favour of whoever can pay for the best lawyers, and it is usually the case that the objects of criticism are those with the deepest pockets.


One comment

  1. […] October 10, 2010 Once again, I thought I’d attempt a letter to my MP, Chris White. The last letter didn’t get a response as far as I can remember, but maybe that was because I sent it just […]

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