By Max Clarke

In order to protect freedom of speech and foster scientific debate, the Coalition Government is undergoing a comprehensive review of defamation laws. Sciences, journalism and non-governmental organisations have all been restricted in expressing their opinions openly by excessive libel claims.

Following an 18 month consultation, a draft Defamation Bill has been published by the Ministry of Justice. Issues included in the draft include:

• A new requirement that a statement must have caused substantial harm in order for it to be defamatory

• A statutory defence of honest opinion (replacing the current common law defence of fair/honest comment)

• Provisions updating and extending the circumstances in which the defences of absolute and qualified privilege are available

• Introduction of a single publication rule to prevent an action being brought in relation to publication of the same material by the same publisher after a one year limitation period has passed

• Action to address libel tourism by ensuring a court will not accept jurisdiction unless satisfied that England and Wales is clearly the most appropriate place to bring an action against someone who is not domiciled in the UK or an EU Member State

Commenting today’s draft Defamation Bill published, Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said:

"I am delighted we have delivered on our promise to reform Defamation Law - this Bill is good news for science. However, the work does not stop here. I encourage all who care about protecting scientific debate to respond to the consultation - tell us what works and what should be improved. I am inviting key members of the science community to discuss the Bill with me next week."