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Shadow justice minister says libel reform issue would be a ‘priority’ for a Tory government

March 24th, 2010 | 1 Comment | Posted by in Editors' pick, Legal, Online Journalism

The Libel Reform campaign, a coalition of Sense About Science, Index on Censorship and English PEN, yesterday said it had one major political party left to get on side: the Conservatives.

But following justice minister Jack Straw’s pledge of Labour support in parliament yesterday, Henry Bellingham, the Conservative shadow justice minister, said that if his party formed the next government they would give the issue priority – with a draft Bill by the end of 2010, according to the latest email update from the campaign.

“He indicated that the Law Commission would be asked to report urgently on necessary. The commitment to legislation from Bellingham is a major milestone,” the campaign’s organisers reported today.

Left: Jack Straw speaking to campaigners in Parliament yesterday (English PEN on Flickr).

Disclaimer: Journalism.co.uk has pledged its support to the Libel Reform campaign.

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Ministry of Justice to reduce success fees in defamation cases

March 4th, 2010 | No Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Legal

The latest on changes to libel and defamation, from the Ministry of Justice:

Justice secretary Jack Straw has taken action to lower the maximum success fees that lawyers can charge in defamation cases from 100 per cent to 10 per cent.

Straw’s Statutory Order amends the Conditional Fee Agreements (CFA) Order 2000 and is subject to approval from Parliament.

Full release at this link…

The Ministry of Justice has also published responses to its ‘Controlling costs in defamation proceedings’ consultation. More than 53 per cent of 57 responses were in favour of reducing maximum success fees.

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Telegraph: Cap lawyers’ success fees in libel cases at 10 per cent, says Jack Straw

January 20th, 2010 | No Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Legal

Success fees for lawyers in libel trials should be capped at 10 per cent, Justice Secretary Jack Straw has suggested, as part of plans to boost freedom of speech and investigative journalism.

News organisations and investigative journalists in the UK have argued that the risk of huge legal bills in libel cases has had a chilling effect on investigative work. The use of Conditional Fee Agreements (CFAs) in particular has been criticised, as these have under “no win no fee” terms allowed lawyers to claim a success fee of 100 per cent on top of their usual rate from the losing side.

Straw said such fees should be capped at 10 per cent and will undertake a four-week consultation of the proposals.

Last year freedom of expression groups Index on Censorship (IOC) and English PEN launched a campaign to reform libel fees and court proceedings and suggested that fees should be capped at £10,000.

But a Law Society spokeswoman told the Telegraph yesterday:

Reducing maximum success fees to 10 per cent would be tantamount to abolishing conditional fees and would thus leave people who have been libelled with no effective access to justice.

Full story at this link…

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Jack Straw proposing ‘wholesale reform’ of UK libel law

The Sunday Times yesterday reported that Jack Straw is to ‘draw up proposals’ for ‘wholesale reform’ of British libel laws.

“The justice secretary says the large legal fees involved in defamation cases in English courts are jeopardising freedom of speech, potentially curbing vital debate by scientists, academics and journalists.

“The huge payouts awarded to individuals who successfully claim their reputation has been damaged has made London the libel capital of the world”

According to the Sunday Times, Straw was ‘impressed’ by the Index on Censorship / English PEN’s year-long inquiry into the state of British libel.

“The proposed changes are still under discussion, but Straw is keen to begin the process, which could involve a new libel bill, as soon as possible.”

Full story at this link…

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Trafigura update: Jack Straw to examine use of ‘super injunctions’

The justice secretary Jack Straw will examine the use of so-called ‘super injunctions’ following yesterday’s Trafigura-Guardian row, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown told MPs in Parliament today.

As reported by PA Mediapoint on Press Gazette, Gordon Brown called secret injunctions, which not only banned reporting of a story but also the existence of the ban itself, an ‘unfortunate’ area of UK law.

Since yesterday’s events which saw Carter-Ruck abandon an attempt to stop the Guardian publishing a tabled question for Parliament, Peter Bottomley, a Conservative MP, told the house he was reporting Carter-Ruck, the law firm acting on behalf of Trafigura, to the Law Society, on the grounds that no lawyers should be able to inhibit the reporting of Parliament.

Carter-Ruck has disputed the Guardian’s account of events published on Monday evening, in a statement available via its website [Full contents at this  PDF link].

“There has never been any question of Trafigura applying for an injunction that had as its purpose the prevention of publication of any matter arising in Parliament.  No such application has ever been made,” it stated.

“Nevertheless, as formulated (and as The Guardian apparently accepts) the Order would indeed have prevented The Guardian from reporting on the  Parliamentary Question which had been tabled for later this week,” the statement said.

The Guardian stated in an editorial today that they were told not to report the question, in line with an existing order. “When we became aware that the existence of this order had been mentioned in a parliamentary question we sought to vary the terms of the injunction. We were advised by Carter-Ruck that publication would place us in contempt of court,” stated the Guardian.

Private Eye was the first publication to publish Paul Farrelly’s question, the fortnightly magazine proclaimed in a story on its site.

“The MP’s [Paul Farrelly] intention to test this conspiracy of silence [secret 'super-injunctions'] by asking questions about it using parliamentary privilege was revealed in Private Eye 1246, which went on sale on 29 September – a full two weeks before the Twittersphere caught up with the story.”

“There is an emerging culture of anonymity in which justice is not even seen to be done, and that is an unfortunate, rather dangerous trend,” said Ian Hislop, the magazine’s editor.

“I thought Private Eye’s job was to expose this. That is why I decided to publish the MP’s questions as the first item in the parliamentary column in yesterday’s [Tuesday] edition of Private Eye,” he said.

“The questions mentioned a recent court case in which we were defendants and concerned a matter on which I had given evidence to a parliamentary select committee. It seemed to me impossible that, in 2009, there could be any reason why we would not be allowed to publish privileged material available from the House of Commons. I saw the questions on the parliament website and I could not think of any judicial ruling which could overrule parliament, so I went ahead. That’s what we’re for.”

But the UK injunction on the report referenced in Paul Farrelly’s question remains.

“The issuing by the courts of so-called ‘super-injunctions’ is rightly controversial and  a matter of growing concern,” MP Paul Farrelly said in a statement yesterday.

“That is why, using parliamentary privilege, I tabled these questions to Jack Straw at the Ministry of Justice as a matter of urgency.”

“The practice offends the time-honoured ‘rule against prior restraint’, which safeguards freedom of expression in this country. It also fails to protect whistleblowers, acting in the public interest. The huge legal bills involved in fighting cases, too, have a chilling effect on legitimate investigative journalism.”

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Guardian tribunal decision is ‘outrageous’, says FOI campaigner

June 15th, 2009 | 1 Comment | Posted by in Journalism, Press freedom and ethics

The Guardian has had its four-year campaign for the release of information about misbehaving members of the judiciary rejected by a Freedom of Information (FOI) tribunal.

The paper had been working on the request since 2005, reporter Rob Evans told Journalism.co.uk in March, and was challenging ‘secret justice’ and asking for a more accountable judiciary.

“We are trying to create a precedent for this kind of information to be released. In the past the government has always kept it as a kind of secret. They have always been very reluctant to release information about naughty judges,” said Evans as the case went to tribunal.

But today the tribunal, led by David Marks QC, ruled in favour of Justice Secretary Jack Straw and suggested that releasing information on when judges, magistrates and coroners had been disciplined could be disruptive to courts and the legal process.

The tribunal was ‘”impressed” by the Ministry of Justice’s argument that judges were entitled to a “reasonable expectation of privacy”‘, according to a report in the Guardian.

“This is an outrageous decision. Judges are highly paid public servants whose conduct in court and, to an extent, out of court must be above reproach,” Evans told Journalism.co.uk today.

“It is fundamental that the public should know how complaints against judges are resolved and the reasons why particular judges have been reprimanded or sacked. Why is Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, covering this information up? He seems to have learnt nothing from the MPs expenses’ debacle.”

The ministry has said it will be more open about the sacking of judges in the future as a result of the Guardian’s campaign. However, taking the full FOI request any further would entail high court action – an expensive procedure.

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Press Gazette: UK government to assess time limits for online libel

February 12th, 2009 | No Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Legal

The UK government will re-examine a 160-year-old legal precedent that means there is not time limit for individuals wanting to sue publishers for online libel, Justice Secretary Jack Straw said yesterday.

Full story at this link…

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Scotsman.com: TV cameras to be allowed in UK Supreme Court

February 4th, 2009 | No Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Legal

Justice Secretary Jack Straw told parliament yesterday that judgments from the soon-to-be-created UK Supreme Court could be televised.

The proposals were anticipated by media law commentator Joshua Rozenberg’s thoughts on the Supreme Court in his interview with Journalism.co.uk.

Full story at this link…

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NY Blogger Three: issued press credentials but still pursuing legal action

Three days ago, three bloggers received press accreditation after suing New York City, following the Police Department refusal to give them press credentials because they work for online news outlets.

They have now been issued credentials after the police relented, the bloggers’ lawyer, Norman Siegel, has said (via NY Times City Room blog and Associated Press).

Rafael Martínez Alequin(Your Free Press), Ralph E. Smith (The Guardian Chronicle) and David Wallis (featurewell.com) lauched the action after being denied credentials in 2007.

Although they have now been issued press cards the bloggers’ lawyer, Norman Siegel told the NYTimes in a phone interview that the trio would still pursue legal action. The NYTimes.com blog reported:

“Mr. Siegel sad [sic] he was delighted with the outcome, but he vowed to continue the lawsuit, saying further reforms were needed.

Siegel told the NYTimes.com:

“This step recognizes that bloggers are 21st-century journalists (…)

“It’s an important first step, but only a first step, because we still need to address the constitutional problem of who gets press credentials in New York City. The Police Department should not be in the business of determining who’s a journalist.”

Though nationally reported there doesn’t seem to have been much discussion in the online journalism world yet (please do add links below, if you’ve picked up any interesting comments).

It’s an interesting case for the ongoing legal definition of journalist/blogger. In the UK, for example, Jack Straw has announced that some family courts will now be opened to the press. But how will press be defined when the changes come in?

As Journalism.co.uk reported on this blog in December, the definition of ‘journalist’ has not yet been clarified…

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‘Accredited media’ not yet defined, Ministry of Justice tells Journalism.co.uk

December 17th, 2008 | 4 Comments | Posted by in Journalism, Legal, Online Journalism

UK Justice Secretary Jack Straw’s proposals to ‘lift the veil,’ and open family courts to the media, bring with them a range of issues, as discussed by the Telegraph’s Joshua Rozenberg.

One of which is the question of what defines the category of ‘accredited media’? Will it include online-only publications, for example?

Journalism.co.uk rang the Ministry of Justice to find out what will constitute ‘accredited media’. A spokesperson said it is currently ‘being decided’ and will be announced ‘once rules are finally agreed’. “It is part of the decision making process,” he said.

What’s the time-frame? Journalism.co.uk asked. Along with other parts of the proposal, final rules will be established by April 2009, the ministry spokesperson said.

As Rozenberg commented, this is a significant part of the proposals. Rozenberg wrote:

” … Mr Straw does not seem to have given enough thought to what constitutes the modern media.

“If I decide to write about legal affairs on my own website, am I a freelance journalist who should be allowed access to the courts or a blogger who should not? And who is to decide?

“Mr Straw’s officials pointed out that press seats at criminal trials are allocated by court officials. But those denied such seats can usually attend as members of the public. That option would not be available here.

“Journalism is not a profession, in the sense of an occupation with controlled entry such as law or architecture. Anyone can call himself or herself a journalist. It is therefore essential that the final decision on who may attend the family courts as a journalist is one for the courts themselves, not officials.”

(Hat tip to Jon Slattery, who also flagged up the issues on his blog.)

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