HL Deb 16 December 1992 vol 541 cc35-6WA
Viscount Davidson

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they had considered the recommendations made by the Supreme Court Procedure Committee about practice and procedure in defamation.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

In February 1990 I invited the Supreme Court Procedure Committee to examine the rules which relate to pleadings in actions for libel or slander with a view to recommending such changes as might appear desirable in the interests of reducing the complexity of the procedure without having an adverse effect on the interests of justice. The committee accepted my invitation to set up a working group under the chairmanship of Lord Justice Neill to undertake this task. In July 1991 Lord Justice Neill presented the committee's report to me. The recommendations made by the committee have been of great assistance to me in considering reforms to this branch of the law. I would like to pay tribute to Lord Justice Neill and the other members of the working group for all their hard work in producing the report. The report contains a number of recommendations, including that:

  1. (i) there should be a new procedure for an offer of amends defence with damages to be fixed by a judge;
  2. (ii) judges should be empowered to rule as to whether words complained of are capable of bearing a particular meaning;
  3. (iii) the rule in Scott v. Sampson which prevents the defendant from proving specific discreditable acts in mitigation of damages should be abolished;
  4. (iv) in the case of a foreign publication a plaintiff should be required to prove the relevant foreign law;
  5. (v) generally, the limitation period should be reduced to one year; and
  6. (vi) protection to media reports afforded by Section 7 of the 1952 Act should be extended to similar reports from abroad.
I have considered these recommendations very carefully and I have decided to accept them.

The new "offer of amends" defence to defamation claims will enable a defendant to curtail proceedings by making an offer where he recognises that the plaintiff has been defamed and is willing to pay damages assessed by the judge.

I have also considered proposals which have been made by Lord Justice Hoffmann and others for a new summary procedure which would enable the plaintiff to claim damages up to a fixed ceiling. Although the working group did not recommend that these proposals should be adopted, I believe that they would also provide valuable assistance to parties seeking speedy and economic disposal of defamation claims and I have therefore decided to accept them. The offer of amends defence will provide a benefit to defendants in particular, while the summary procedure would offer a counter-balancing benefit to plaintiffs. Implementation of some of these changes may be achieved by amending rules of court. I will invite the Supreme Court Rule Committee to proceed accordingly. Others, however, will require primary legislation, which will be introduced as soon as a suitable opportunity occurs.