Defamation Bill: second reading

12 July 2010

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town and Lord Willis of Knaresborough made their maiden speeches in the House of Lords on Friday 9 July during the second reading of the Defamation Bill.

Baroness Hayter called for a balance between the ability of those, including companies and large organisations, unfairly pilloried in the press to have the legal means to pursue a claim on one hand and free speech and the right of 'citizens to be well informed on matters of public interest.' She said the threat of libel action from a body with large vested interest can 'silence public discourse', including scientific discourse. Academic journals and seminars are the place for such debate, not courts, 'unless well defined barriers are crossed.'

Baroness Hayter is chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel. She was formerly vice chairman of the Financial Services Authority Consumer Panel and chair of the Consumer Panel of the Bar Standards Board.

Lord Willis expressed his concern at the abuse of libel laws, saying that the UK had become the 'world capital for libel tourism’ and citizens were 'being silenced by the cost of defending even the most valid of expressed opinion'. He also referred to public interest in the ability to criticise medical and scientific claims in good faith and questioned whether companies and associations should be able to sue for libel. He spoke of his concern about the 'chilling of scientific debate' with journals altering and rejecting articles, unable to ‘risk viability’ on a long, costly trials.

Lord Willis was Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills 2000-05, and was a member of a number of Commons committees, including as chair of the Science and Technology Committee.

Other areas of discussion during the second reading of the Defamation Bill included:

  • defences to actions of defamation, including the scope of qualified privilege
  • changes to the conduct of proceedings, including the introduction of juries
  • costs, damages and the misuse of private information.

Further information

The second reading of a Bill usually takes place two weeks after the first reading. The government Minister or a senior spokesperson in the Lords for the government department responsible for the Bill opens the debate. Second reading provides the first opportunity for Members of the Lords to discuss the purpose of the Bill and its main principles.

The term ‘maiden speech’ refers to the first time a new Member gives a speech in the House of the Lords. A maiden speech usually takes place during a general debate and is uncontroversial.

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