English law brings end to 'libel tourism'

Enactment of new legislation aims to stop foreigners suing each other in London courts and strengthens the position of respondents

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 April, 2013, 3:27am

London's reputation as the defamation capital of the world is poised to end after the enactment of a law that strengthens the position of respondents and puts a virtual end to so-called libel tourism.

Powerful foreigners - Russian oligarchs, Arab oil magnates and large corporations - have often brought libel cases against authors, journalists, academics, scientists and bloggers based on the most tenuous of links to England.

Under the new law, claimants wanting to sue people who do not live in Europe will have to prove that England is the most appropriate place for the case. This is designed to stop foreigners suing other foreigners in English courts over, for instance, books or magazines that have sold just a handful of copies there, or websites that have been viewed few times or even not at all.

The new law applies only to England and Wales, because Scotland and Northern Ireland have different systems.

In Hong Kong, leading lawyers did not see any urgency for the city to follow England's cue and change its defamation law, even though Hong Kong's legal framework is based on English common law.

However, it does mean that some English law cases may in future be less relevant to Hong Kong judges if they stem from the new law, senior counsel and former lawmaker Audrey Eu Yuet-mee said.

Eu said there was no urgency for Hong Kong to amend its libel law. "Parties in Hong Kong may threaten to sue by issuing warning letters through their lawyers. But not many of them would actually take their cases to court."

Parties in Hong Kong may threaten to sue by issuing warning letters through their lawyers. But not many of them would actually take their cases to court
Senior counsel and former lawmaker Audrey Eu Yuet-mee

She said Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal laid down a generous approach to the right of fair comment on matters of public interest in 2000, when it ruled on a defamation suit between veteran broadcaster Albert Cheng King-hon and celebrity lawyer Paul Tse Wai-chun.

Law Society vice-president Stephen Hung Wan-shun also said there were not many local lawsuits involving defamation.

Under the law passed in London, the burden of proof still rests with the respondent rather than the plaintiff. But it strengthens a respondent's position in a number of ways, making it harder for aggrieved parties to sue.

Plaintiffs will now have to prove that the speech at issue has caused, or is likely to cause, serious harm to their reputations. Corporations and other entities will have to prove that they have incurred, or are likely to incur, serious financial loss. The law also makes it harder for them to sue intermediaries like internet service providers, search engines and hosts of internet forums.

Respondents will also be able to make the case that they published their statements in good faith, in what they believed to be the "public interest".


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