UPDATE: Simon Singh libel case

By Phil Plait | February 23, 2010 4:16 pm

Skeptic and journalist Simon Singh appeared before the High Court today in a hearing about accusations of libel. This case is critical for journalism, medicine, science, and skepticism, and you can get the background info on it in an earlier post I wrote. But basically, Simon was sued by the British Chiropractic Association over an article he wrote in The Guardian, and Simon has appealed, which is what today’s case was about.

His lawyer and that of the BCA presented their cases in front of three judges. According to reports by Jack of Kent and Crispian Jago (NSFW language in the latter), things went pretty well, though of course we can’t know until the judges actually rule. According to both reports, though, the judges seemed far more sympathetic to Simon’s arguments than to the BCA’s.

However, as Jack of Kent wrote:

Nonetheless, Simon may still lose: the Court of Appeal may decide that even if the High Court ruling is incorrect, it is not so incorrect that they should disturb the judgment.

In other words, it seems that they may disagree with the original ruling, but may feel it wasn’t so wrong that it’s worth the effort to overturn.

I of course hope they do. And once this case is won, we can then move on to the far, far bigger picture: reforming the UK’s horrible and draconian libel laws, which are unfair, and I think reasonable to characterize as backward and medieval. The way it’s set up, the burden of proof is on the accused to show what they said was not libel, rather than on the accuser to show that it is libel. That’s ridiculous, and what it winds up doing is making it hard for journalists to fairly write about many issues, because they may be scared of being sued and having to spend literally millions of dollars in defense.

That’s why I strongly support the reform effort.

I’ll be keeping my eyes on this, and you can stay on it as well by checking in on the blogs of Jack of Kent and Crispian Jago as well.

Comments (18)

Links to this Post

  1. English libel law is an ass | February 24, 2010
  1. Brian

    Thanks for the update and the pointers, Phil. Fingers crossed….

  2. James

    Is it as ridiculous as suggested? I’m no expert on this law or any other, but I wonder how much protection other libel laws offer complainants. That is, if someone sues a newspaper for printing certain allegations and he/she is required to prove that it is libel, what standards of proof are they held to? (What I mean is that if defendants are not required to prove that their allegations are true, where does that leave libellous claims that are unfounded but difficult to prove as false?)
    In the UK, super-injunctions are much-maligned, but they are there for a reason.

  3. James

    Put another way, say the BCA put out a statement saying that Simon Singh slept with goats and Singh decided to sue them for this. Are people saying that the BCA should not have to prove this allegation?

  4. SinisterBill

    Where might one go to find people who support the current libel laws in the UK? I’ve never seen anyone defend them and I’m seriously curious as to why it’s taken so long to be addressed.

  5. JA

    “And once this case is won, we can then move on to the far, far bigger picture…”

    ‘We’? Are you British?

  6. JA (#5) If you read the link at the bottom of the post you’ll see this is an international problem due to “libel tourism”. I don’t need to be British to help fight this.

  7. Steve Huntwork

    Phil, you should be worried!

    Step back for a moment and think about this. If someone slanders you, then you must prove in a court of law that their slander was false?

    “The way it’s set up, the burden of proof is on the accused to show what they said was not libel, rather than on the accuser to show that it is libel.”

    What happened to the concept of “innocent until proven guilty?”

  8. Cory

    @7. You (and Britain) have it backwards. Having to prove that what the defendant (the accused slanderER in this case) said is false is what preserves innocent until proven guilty. If you have to defend yourself in court for the crime of libel/slander/littering/murder and you have to prove that you did not do it, you are guilty until proven innocent and might find yourself in an impossible situation. “Innocent until proven guilty” in this instance is unfortunate in that criminals are sometimes unpunished due to a lack of proof, but very crucial to maintaining a fair legal system.

    As for the actual libel case in Britain: this is what they get for not writing their rights down in a self-checking judicial system. Much of the British legal system could use reform.

  9. Messier Tidy Upper

    The way it’s set up, the burden of proof is on the accused to show what they said was not libel, rather than on the accuser to show that it is libel.

    I’m no lawyer but doesn’t that principle seem to totally contradict the key legal justice idea of Presumption of Innocence?

    Shouldn’t Simon Singh & others accused of libel be presumed innocent until proven guilty of libel with it being up to the prosecution – those saying he is guilty of libel – to prove guilt *beyond reasonable doubt* here?

    The truth & the right to express your views – esp. true ones – freely should be a paramount defence too.

    PS,. Just seen that (# 7.) Steve Huntwork has beaten me to it. Oh well. I agree & add my voice to his. :-)

  10. Gary

    I think that if Simon Singh loses this appeal we should stage a mass-libel against the BCA. If the 100,000 people who signed the petition to rid us of these stupid libel laws were to all write a piece saying the BCA promotes bogus cures, the BCA wouldn’t be able to sue everyone and the entire libel system wouldn’t be able to cope, that would force Britain’s judges to reform it.

  11. W J

    Phil,

    Thanks for alerting me to this – I’m English but hadn’t heard about this case until reading it on your blog, so first off – keep posting things like this! I’ve signed the petition.

    I and many of my friends have been taking chiropractic treatment for (in my case) severe upper-lower back pain, probably hereditary, and for other back/shoulder/neck issues, but not for any of the really alternative things some chiro’s suggest they can fix..

    We probably share the same views on whether/not Chiro can fix all sorts of weird illnesses, but specifically I was wondering about your views on the treatment of back pain – specifically, do you know of any cases where it’s been detrimental to sufferers of back pain to visit a chiropractor?

    Cheers!

  12. Ginger Yellow

    “In the UK, super-injunctions are much-maligned, but they are there for a reason.”

    Super-injunctions are rarely (if ever – I’d have to check) granted for potentially libellous material. They’re typically granted for breach of privacy (John Terry) or breach of confidentiality (Trafigura, Barclays).

    FYI, the Commons Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport published a huge report today on the press, including many recommendations for libel reform. For non-Brits, you need to bear in mind that select committees have very little power in practice, but they do set the tone of debate to a certain degree and it’s a very good thing that they’re on board. I’m not hugely optimistic that there’s going to be wholesale reform of libel law, but it seems pretty clear now that there will be more than cosmetic changes in the next couple of years.

  13. Andrew

    Tricky, isn’t it. A person makes a statement that you consider defamatory. Should you – as the complainant – be required to show that the statement is defamatory, or should the publisher – as the defendant – be required to show that the statement is not defamatory?

    Or, to put it another way, someone makes damaging allegations against you. Should you be required to show that the allegations are false, or should the person making the allegations be required to show that they are true?

    Remembering in both cases a civil court hearing a libel case will make its decision on the balance of probabilities, based on the evidence provided by the parties.

    The law generally requires a person who asserts a positive position to show at least prima facie evidence for it, before the other party has to provide evidence in rebuttal. Is the positive position the original statement / allegation, or the complaint about it?

  14. Ginger Yellow

    “Tricky, isn’t it. A person makes a statement that you consider defamatory. Should you – as the complainant – be required to show that the statement is defamatory, or should the publisher – as the defendant – be required to show that the statement is not defamatory?”

    Technically speaking, in English law, a claimant first has to show the statement is defamatory. In other words, the claimant has to prove that the words complained of were published in the UK (this is interpreted extremely broadly by English courts), they are a statement of a fact, they identify the claimant, and that they would lower the reputation of the claimant in the eyes of a reasonable person. If this is done, that’s when the burden of proof switches to the defendant and they have to argue a defence, one of which is truth (aka justification). Now, in practice, because of the way the English courts have construed the statute(s), it’s extremely easy to prove defamation, so that’s why people say the burden of proof is on the defendant.

  15. Robert E

    The person should have to show that the statements are true — it should be much easier for them to prove they are true than for you to prove they are false.

  16. Ginger Yellow

    As I’ve argued before, the main problem with libel law in England and Wales (and in NI, Australia and other places that follow English law closely) isn’t the burden of proof aspect. It’s the extremely broad jurisdictional claim, combined with the enormous cost of defending a libel case (most claims are brought on a conditional fee basis). Basically something is deemed to have been published in the UK if it was able to have been read in the UK, no matter where it was actually published. US books, US websites, US newspapers – these all come under English jurisdiction even if there is no active distribution in the UK. Moreover, anyone involved in the chain of publication (author, publisher, bookseller, ISP) is a potential defendant, giving vexatious claimants a rich variety of targets depending on their goal. On top of that, libel costs excluding damages are 140(!) times the European average.

    There are also lots of other smaller issues that undermine a defendant’s ability to prove the truth of the defamatory statement – see for instance the Bower/Black case, where the judge tried to exclude extremely pertinent evidence but thankfully was overruled on appeal.

    Taken together that provides a pretty big chilling effect for anyone within the reach of English courts.

  17. So, is he having a hard time proving that what he said was true? Libel laws seem kind of whack.

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