English Defamation Law

English defamation law has a rich historical background, with roots extending back to the Statute of Gloucester in the reign of Edward I (1272–1307). This legal framework encompasses both libel, referring to written or published defamation, and slander, which pertains to spoken defamation. The law of libel gained prominence during the reign of James I (1603–1625), notably under the initiatives of Attorney General Edward Coke, who prosecuted a series of libel cases.

In the contemporary context, English law allows individuals to bring actions for libel in the High Court. Such actions can be initiated for published statements that are alleged to defame a named or identifiable individual, causing them loss in their trade or profession or damaging their reputation. The legal presumption is that any statement considered defamatory is false, unless the defendant can prove its truth.

Defendants in defamation cases can employ several defences to protect themselves. These defences include justification, where the defendant proves that the statement is true; honest opinion, which allows individuals to express an honest opinion on a matter of public interest; and privilege, which protects certain statements made in specific contexts, such as during court or parliamentary proceedings.

One distinctive feature of English defamation law is that it places the burden of proof on the defendant. Unlike in some legal systems, the plaintiff is not required to prove the falsehood of the statement. This particular aspect has led to criticism, with concerns raised about the potential impact on free speech, making it an impediment to open expression in the developed world.

Libel tourism, a phenomenon where individuals file defamation suits in England to censor critical works, has been a notable issue. This occurs even when their home countries might outright reject such cases. In response to this and concerns about the impact on free speech, the United States introduced the Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage (SPEECH) Act 2010, which renders foreign libel judgments unenforceable and unrecognisable by US courts if they do not comply with U.S. protections for freedom of speech and due process.

Recognising these concerns, the Defamation Act 2013 substantially reformed English defamation law. The reforms aimed to address issues related to free speech by strengthening the criteria for a successful claim, mandating evidence of actual or probable harm, and expanding defences for website operators, public interest, and privileged publications. This law applies to causes of action occurring after its commencement on January 1, 2014. The reforms mark a significant step in modernising and balancing the principles of reputation protection and free expression within the English legal system.
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