Lord Puttnam (Labour) began the debate with Amendment 1, he said: ‘The bill may deal with some of the perversities of the current libel system... However, for the citizen who has a case in law that suggests they have been wronged by the press, the bill has absolutely nothing to say about access to justice or the costs of seeking that justice in the courts, all of which is plainly unaffordable except for the very wealthy. After everything that we heard at the Leveson inquiry, the problems of access to justice and to remedies are far too important to be left unresolved’
He continued: ‘Lord Justice Leveson has already proposed a ready-made and carefully considered solution. The advantage of our simple amendments is that they closely follow those recommendations, which laid out exactly the way in which this system of low-cost arbitration should be introduced to deal with legal disputes involving newspapers. They also have the merit of showing that the arbitration service proposed by Lord Justice Leveson can be put into effect in a remarkably simple and straightforward manner.’
Lord Lester of Herne Hill (Liberal Democrat), expressed his concern about the amendment, saying: ‘The Leveson inquiry was concerned with serious press misconduct involving gross media intrusions on personal privacy. The bill before the House is, as its long title makes clear, a bill to amend the law of defamation. It is not a bill to amend the law of privacy.’
Baroness Boothroyd (Crossbench) followed, saying: ‘I said in my speech during the Leveson debate that many of the transgressions happened because of the culture of some newspapers whereby they grew to believe that they were untouchable. It is that culture that must be changed. It can be done with the establishment of a new complaints procedure for the public which... allows problems and issues with the press to be nipped in the bud at an early stage and dealt with.’
The amendment went to a vote, and was agreed with 272 voting for, and 141 against.
Discussion then moved onto Amendment 2, which proposes to ‘end the current position whereby individuals and organisations have identical hurdles to jump in an action for defamation.’ Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town (Labour) introduced the amendment, saying: ‘Defamation is about someone's reputation being trampled and seriously damaged by untrue statements made about them. Some commentators think that since only people and not organisations have feelings, only people should be able to sue. We do not go that far. We accept that organisations can be damaged by untrue allegations.’ She continued to explain that the amendment ‘...simply requires companies to obtain the court's permission to sue by showing that it has been, or is likely to be, caused substantial financial loss.’
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Conservative) responded on behalf of the government saying: ‘...the government have made it clear in previous debates that there is a difficult balance to be struck... Considerable damage can be done to the reputation of a business by unjustified and defamatory allegations, and this has an impact on all those involved with the business, including its shareholders and employees. On the other hand, we fully recognise the need to ensure that powerful businesses are not able to - for want of a better term - bully individuals or organisations with limited means into remaining silent on issues of public importance by the threat of libel proceedings.’
The amendment was agreed after going to a vote, with 201 for and 193 against.
Members of the Lords also examined publishing statements in the public interest, liabilities of website owners and the removal of defamatory statements from websites.
Defamation Bill summary
The aim of the bill is to reform the law of defamation to ensure that a fair balance is struck between the right to freedom of expression and the protection of reputation. The bill makes a number of substantive changes to the law of defamation, but is not designed to codify the law into a single statute.
- includes a requirement for claimants to show that they have suffered serious harm before suing for defamation
- removes the current presumption in favour of a jury trial
- introduces a defence of 'responsible publication on matters of public interest'
- provides increased protection to operators of websites that host user-generated content, providing they comply with the procedure to enable the complainant to resolve disputes directly with the author of the material concerned
- introduces new statutory defences of truth and honest opinion to replace the common law defences of justification and fair comment.
What is report stage?
Report stage gives all members of the Lords further opportunity to examine and make changes, known as amendments, to a bill.
Report stage usually starts 14 days after committee stage. It can be spread over several days (but usually fewer days than at committee stage).
Before report stage starts, all member's amendments are recorded and published. The day before a report stage debate the amendments are placed in order - a marshalled list.
During report stage detailed line by line examination of the bill continues. Any member of the Lords can take part and votes can take place.
After report stage the bill is reprinted to include all the agreed amendments. The bill then moves to third reading for the final chance for the Lords to debate and amend the bill.