Libel cases at record high as the rich and famous use British courts to silence their critics

Lord Judge has backed the idea of new legislation to limit the spread of libel, as record numbers of cases reach the British courts

Record numbers of libel cases are reaching the courts, fuelling concerns over Britain’s reputation as the ‘libel capital of the world’.

More than 250 were heard last year, up by a fifth in two years, figures showed.

The rich and famous from around the world have been flocking to London to use its courts to try to silence their critics, forcing U.S. states including New York and California to pass laws nullifying the rulings.

Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, the most senior judge in England and Wales, has backed the idea of new legislation to limit the spread of libel. 

Jaron Lewis, of legal firm Reynolds Porter Chamberlain, said: ‘Five years ago commentators were saying that libel was dying but such a conclusion was clearly premature. In fact, these figures show that the UK remains a very attractive jurisdiction for libel claimants.

‘This is because our laws are very pro-claimant, making it difficult for the media to defend claims, even when [they have no merit].’ 

The libel boom has been fuelled by the willingness of British judges to listen to claims from wealthy foreigners and the availability of ‘no-win no-fee’ deals for claimants.

Judges have regularly allowed foreigners to sue even when the material they object to has not been published in Britain, or has been seen by only a handful on the internet.

There were 259 defamation writs issued in the High Court in 2008, compared to 233 in 2007 and 213 in 2006, the judicial statistics showed.

Many more claims never reach court, with publishers or authors paying out to avoid the high costs of a trial.

Mr Lewis said: ‘For some publishers the cost of losing a libel trial – or even winning one – might actually put them at risk of closure. It is not the level of damages so much as the requirement to pay a claimant’s legal costs, which will often be a six-figure sum.’

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