Are expensive libel cases on the way out?
Some fascinating new official figures showing a startling decline in the number of new libel cases have been revealed on the excellent media law blog Inforrm.
They show a 40 per cent drop in the number of new libel claims in the Royal Courts of Justice between 2014 and 2015 from 227 to 135. Admittedly 2014 had a large number of new cases but the blog points out that there has been a steady decline in libel actions since 1992. You can read the blog and see the statistics in full here.
The introduction of the new Defamation Act is the biggest change to libel in the last two years which aimed to reduce the number of claims by establishing ways of settling issues without coming to a full trial in court.
The jury is still out on how effective this new legislation is. But it appears that the huge cost of mounting a libel trial and a cap on damages that will be awarded to the person defamed has had a chilling effect.
Damages are effectively capped at £275,000 for the most serious possible libel (see Barron v Vines  EWHC 1226 (QB)) but, in practice, even after a contested trial awards rarely exceed £100,000.
It has also been suggested that the Reynolds qualified privilege defence (now “Publication on Matter of Public Interest” under section 4 of the Defamation Act 2013) has, by encouraging journalistic responsibility, reduced the number of egregious libels and so the number of actions."
Frankly this is all good news for bloggers who are threatened with libel cases from big and powerful commercial interests and powerful figures. Are they going to spend up to £700,000 with all the attendant publicity of a trial to take on a blog when the most they could get back might be less than £100,000? And they would have no chance of recovering their money either.
What this doesn't disclose is whether the rich and powerful are using other means to silence critics particularly bloggers. This big drop in cases has been accompanied by a big rise in the number of people using the " right to be forgotten " imposed by the European Court to get Google to remove serious criticism of individuals from its search engine on the net.
This is a far cheaper and effective way of silencing critics. As Inforrm reported earlier :
" Large numbers of delisting requests are now being made under the Google Spain ruling. Google’s most recent transparency report indicates that it has received 400,564 removal requests and has removed 42.6% of URLs covered by them. Google has received 48,979 requests from the United Kingdom and has removed 184,115 URLs (38.6% of those requested).”.
Given the internet is peppered with defamatory statements about people could this be a new and more secretive way of silencing criticism? It avoids the publicity of a libel trial and there appears to be no appeal and no easy way of knowing this has happened.
Could this be the new way -arguing privacy - the rich and powerful stop legitimate criticism and damning disclosures about their past?