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Libel laws reformed

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The government has overturned ‘outdated’ libel laws which penalised sedition and criminal libel.

This January, Section 73 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 came into effect removing penalties and the prosecution of seditious libel, written or permanent comments aimed at disparaging the sovereign or institutions of government, and defamatory libel, the criminal counterpart to civil defamation.

“Sedition and seditious and defamatory libel are arcane offences, from a bygone era when freedom of expression wasn’t seen as the right it is today,” said Justice Minister Claire Ward.

“Freedom of speech is now seen as the touchstone of democracy, and the ability of individuals to criticise the state is crucial to maintaining freedom.”

Previously, sedition and seditious libel stood as common law offences, punishable with unlimited fines or imprisonment, whilst defamatory libel arose through statements aimed at exposing a person to public hatred, contempt or ridicule, punishable through criminal proceedings.

But, unlike civil defamation, through which individuals can still challenge defamatory statements with a view to compensation and an official apology, criminal proceedings could only be justified under prosecution in the public interest.

“The existence of these obsolete offences in this country had been used by other countries as justification for the retention of similar laws which have been actively used to suppress political dissent and restrict press freedom,” added Justice Ward.

“Abolishing these offences will allow the UK to take a lead in challenging similar laws in other countries, where they are used to suppress free speech.”

Campaign group Libel Reform’s 2009 campaign, Free Speech Is Not For Sale, challenged the country’s libel laws, which have become increasingly highlighted in the past few years. But changes are finally beginning to address public and business concerns, particularly journalists’, following Justice Secretary Jack Straw’s pledge to review the laws in late 2009.

Obscene, blasphemous, defamatory and seditious libel were originally covered by criminal libel laws. But the abolition of blasphemous libel in section 79 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, and obscene material’s governance under the Obscene Publications Acts of 1959 and 1964, mean that criminal libel has effectively vanished from British statute following this week’s reforms.

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Written by Andrew Hodges

January 22, 2010 at 5:21 pm

Posted in Comment, LinkedIn, New Law

Tagged with , , ,

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