Newspapers to be spared punitive libel costs
Newspapers will be spared the “crippling” legal costs they feared would have a “chilling” effect on freedom of expression under election pledges made by the Conservatives.
The party’s manifesto says that it will repeal a measure that would have forced newspapers that did not sign up to an approved regulator to pay their opponents’ costs in libel and privacy cases, even if they won the case.
The Conservatives have also pledged to ditch the second part of the Leveson inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press, and to keep Channel 4 in public ownership but to relocate it out of London.
Newspapers had widely condemned section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2014, which is on the statute book but not yet enacted, because of the punitive deterrent costs that it would inflict. However, the manifesto published yesterday pledges to repeal the section, accepting that “if enacted, [it] would force media organisations to become members of a flawed regulatory system or risk having to pay the legal costs of both sides in libel and privacy cases, even if they win”.
The Society of Editors “wholeheartedly” welcomed the commitment not to bring the section into force, saying that many newspapers had made clear such costs orders would have a “seriously chilling effect” on their work. It said: “To put it simply, they would be less inclined to pursue investigations in the public interest when the risk of crippling legal costs would be increased.”
Independent public advocate for disaster cases proposed
An independent public advocate will be created by the Conservatives if they win the election to act for bereaved families after disasters and support them at inquests, the party announced in its manifesto.
Theresa May’s party will also impose a system of specialist training for publicly-funded advocates acting in cases involving allegations of serious sexual offences. The move will be designed to ensure that alleged victims and witness in those cases are handled sensitively. The Tory manifesto said the plans for a public advocate came out of the gruelling experiences of the families of the victims of the Hillsborough stadium disaster in 1989.
“To ensure that the pain and suffering of the Hillsborough families over the last 20 years is not repeated,” the manifesto says, “we will introduce an independent public advocate, who will act for bereaved families after a public disaster and support them public inquests.”
In other areas around the law, the party committed to extending the scope of the unduly lenient sentence scheme “so a wider range of sentences can be challenged”. The Tories would also “push forward” with plans to crack down on hate crimes committed on the basis of religion, disability, sexual orientation or transgender identity.