Uk Faces Backlash Over ‘Libel Tourists’
By The Sunday Times | by Robert Watts
Sunday, June 7th, 2009 @ 1:34AM
US politicians try to protect citizens from British court, claiming foreigners use law to bring expensive defamation cases
American politicians are pushing through free speech laws to protect US citizens from libel rulings in British courts that have been accused of stifling criticism of oligarchs and dictators. The development follows claims that foreigners flock to the UK to begin hugely expensive defamation cases even though they have little to do with this country. Claimants who have indulged in so-called “libel tourism” include a Ukrainian businessman who sued a Ukrainian language website based in his homeland for $50,000, simply because its contents could be viewed in Britain.
An Icelandic bank successfully sued a Danish newspaper in the British courts for publishing unflattering stories about the advice it gave to clients, despite collapsing six months later. Now lawmakers in several American states, including New York and Illinois, have moved to block the enforcement of British libel judgments in the United States. Congress is also considering a bill that will allow defendants of foreign libel suits to counter-sue for up to three times the damages sought by a claimant if their right to free speech, enshrined in the First Amendment, has been violated. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Greenpeace, Global Witness, Index on Censorship and representatives of Oxfam and Christian Aid are all known to be alarmed by the way UK courts are being used to challenge their reports.
“Our libel laws have made Britain a place where any of the world’s bullies and wealthy celebrities can wander into court 13 and launder their reputations,” said Mark Stephens, a partner at the law firm Finers Stephens Innocent, which advises many non-governmental organisations (NGOs). “In the US you can still be sued but claimants pay for their own lawyers, fewer spurious claims go to court and freedom of speech is enshrined in law by the First Amendment. Some NGOs are seriously considering moving their publication people out to the States to protect themselves.” London has long been regarded as a claimant-friendly place for libel actions because defendants are deemed “guilty” until they have proved their innocence, the opposite of the usual burden of proof in criminal cases.
Damages are also typically higher in the UK and the costs so expensive that defendants often feel compelled to settle out of court, even though they may be in the right. Because there is no legal aid for such cases, the government has allowed libel and privacy claimants to sue under “no win, no fee” arrangements. This enables lawyers to claim a 100% “uplift” on their normal rates. One of London’s leading libel lawyers charges up to a total of $1,200 an hour. “The reports NGOs (write) take many months, even years, to put together and rely on anonymous sources who fear for their lives,” said Jo Glanville, of Index on Censorship. “These are not people you can just pull into a courtroom. By contrast, many of these libel tourism claims are not about disputing factual errors, they are really about shutting up critics who have exposed serious abuses.”
Global Witness, an environmental and human rights pressure group, faced legal action in London from Denis Christel Sassou Nguesso, son of the president of Congo-Brazzaville. The NGO published a report, based on Hong Kong court papers, which suggested Sassou Nguesso had bought more than $100,000 of designer clothes and other luxury goods using a credit card paid for by public funds. Sassou Nguesso hired Schillings, a London law firm, in an attempt to suppress the report. His application for an injunction did not succeed, but Global Witness has been left with legal costs of $50,000. The Commons culture, media and sport select committee is conducting an inquiry into libel, privacy and press standards. “I have been left in no doubt that the high cost of libel claims is having a damaging effect on the good work of some NGOs,” said John Whittingdale, its chairman.
Jack Straw, the justice secretary, has also admitted that no-win no-fee agreements for claimant lawyers are having a serious effect on free speech. Mr Justice Eady, a High Court judge, has delivered a series of rulings that have bolstered privacy laws and encouraged libel tourism. He awarded Max Mosley, the Formula One president, privacy damages of $60,000 over the News of the World’s expos￩ of his sex life. Most recently, Eady has been accused of “stifling” scientific debate after he ruled in favour of a trade body for chiropractors against a science writer who had accused the body of promoting “bogus treatments”. Eady said that Simon Singh, the writer, had effectively accused the body of dishonesty.
In a landmark decision five years ago Eady gave judgment for Khalid bin Mahfouz, a Saudi banker, who had sued Rachel Ehrenfeld, an American academic. She suggested in a book that the banker had links to the financing of terrorist groups.Ehrenfeld had not published or promoted the book in this country but 23 copies sold over the internet were shipped to Britain. She decided not to defend the case, but Eady ordered her to pay $130,000 in costs and damages. He also ruled that any copies of her book must be pulped. This judgment almost single-handedly launched the American freedom of speech backlash against UK libel laws.