DESTITUTE DEFAMERS – 14 December 1999

Dr Julian Lewis: If he will make a statement on the remedies available to the victims of defamers without assets?

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr David Lock): Criminal libel is available, although it is rarely used, and the Attorney- General's consent to a prosecution is required. Under any other circumstances, the courts are open to everyone, regardless of means. New rules of court for defamation proceedings will be introduced in the new year. They will make it possible for defamation claims to be tackled more quickly and at a lower cost than at present. We also intend to consult in the new year on perceived abuses of defamation procedures.

[SUPPLEMENTARY:] I thank the Minister for that answer and I declare an interest as a victim of a destitute defamer. I also thank the Minister for the time that he has already spent discussing and corresponding with me about this difficult matter. Does he accept that there is currently no civil remedy that is practically available to the victim of a destitute defamer, because it is impossible to sue such a person without incurring irrecoverable costs and having to pay them when the defamer goes bankrupt?

I am glad that the Minister acknowledges that the possibility of criminal libel proceedings continues to exist. In his review, will he consider using the law on harassment to deal with persistent destitute defamers; and will he bear it in mind that, in the age of the internet, anyone without assets can defame someone with impunity on a worldwide basis?

Mr Lock: The hon. Gentleman has raised many issues. I shall deal first with the internet. I accept his point, although, as he knows, the regulation of the internet involves much wider issues than defamation. We must consider several issues in connection with the review of defamation procedures. The hon. Gentleman has raised one, but complaints have also been made about rich and powerful people using the law of defamation and the law of contempt to attempt to suppress legitimate comment about themselves and their activities. There are complaints from both ends of the spectrum. However, I understand the hon. Gentleman's anxieties, some of which will be addressed in the consultation paper that we intend to issue in the new year.