Have you heard? England may be shutting itself to tourists. Not the camera-toting, Big Ben-gawking, bus-riding sort of course, but a different, more controversial subset of regular visitors ignominiously labeled “libel tourists.”
Lured by London’s archaic libel law- where the burden of proof rests on the defendant- non-British citizens have flooded local courts with lawsuits. A celebrity aggrieved by tabloid rumors? Go to London. A Russian oligarch irked by an American news article? Why, go to London. The fact that neither party nor the subject of the suit has much to do with England matters little.
That may be changing, reports The New York Times:
Embarrassed by London’s reputation as “a town called sue” and by unusually stinging criticisms in American courts and legislatures, British lawmakers are seriously considering rewriting England’s 19th-century libel laws. A member of the House of Lords is preparing a bill that would, among other things, require foreigners to demonstrate that they have suffered actual harm in England before they can sue here.
(Via British Lawmakers Look at Rewriting Libel Law – NYTimes.com)
Wait, you mean lawsuits would now have to be relevant to England in order to use their courts? What a concept. England’s reconsideration has come about thanks in large part to the libel system’s most notorious abuser, late Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz. Bin Mahfouz, who died of heart failure in August, became the scourge of free-speech activists after lodging a series of London libel suits against journalists who had linked him to terrorism financing. His personal website listed dozens of formal mea culpas from his lawsuit victims as well as seven years’ worth of “corrections” from amended books and articles. He had a formidable winning streak until Rachel Ehrenfeld, an American author who accused him of funding Al Qaeda in a 2003 book, put her foot down when the billionaire sued.
The book sold just 23 copies in England, but that was deemed sufficient to allow Mr. Mahfouz to bring his case here. Ms. Ehrenfeld, who refused to participate in the case or submit to the courtﾒs jurisdiction, was ordered in a default judgment to pay him more than $225,000.
The case inspired “Rachelﾒs Law,” which rendered English libel decisions virtually unenforceable in New York state. Several other states have passed similar legislation and Congress is considering following suit.
The reclusive Saudi courted controversy his entire life. Born into wealth (his father founded the first Saudi-controlled bank, National Commercial Bank) bin Mahfouz assumed leadership of the company after his father’s death and promptly ran it into the ground. The prodigal son also managed to get tangled in the massive Bank of Credit & Commerce International scandal in the ’80’s, get pushed out of his family bank in the ’90’s and provoke his jilted interior designer into blackmailing him in the ’00’s. All in all an impressive roster of infamous accomplishments for a man whose life ended at 50. And yet in death he may be best-known for helping close the very legal loophole he sought to exploit.