MSPs seek views on defamation reform proposals

17.01.2020

MSPs on the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee are seeking views from the public, media organisations and publishers, internet firms and other experts on proposed changes to the law on defamation.

The Justice Committee has been tasked with considering the Defamation and Malicious Publication Bill, which aims to balance individuals’ freedom of expression alongside defending reputations against damaging, false or malicious views.

The Bill’s promoters argue that the changes are necessary following the advent of the internet, as well as to bring the various pieces of statute in Scots and common law relating to defamation together in one place. The last substantive changes to the law in this area were made in 1996.

The law of defamation covers most statements and published views, including those made by social media users and ordinary members of the public, in addition to news publishers, website owners and commentators.

The Bill would also clarify current practices and makes some changes to the law as it stands. If the Bill is passed, the new law would set a test for ‘serious harm’ to reputation, confirm that public authorities’ cannot bring defamation cases, and clarify the defences that can be used in defamation cases. These are renamed ‘truth’, ‘honest opinion’ and ‘publication on a matter of public interest’. It would also reduce the timescale for raising a defamation court action from three years to one year.

Speaking as the call for views was launched, Committee Convener, Margaret Mitchell MSP, said:

“Having previously advocated for changes to update the law on defamation, Committee Members will welcome the introduction of this Bill to pull together the law in this area into one place, and hopefully bring it into the 21st century.

“The tension that can arise between freedom of expression and protecting reputation has been a key concern of the law for many decades. New technologies, such as the internet and social media, provide new dimensions and challenges. Consequently, the law on defamation in Scotland is found across both legislation and case law.

“We want to ensure that the right balance between competing tensions has been struck and that in this era of mass digital publishing the proposals are workable.

“As ever, the detail matters, and the Committee intends to scrutinise the proposals closely.”  

Background

The Committee previously undertook work on the Scottish Law Commission’s (SLC) proposals to update the law on defamation (proposals, including 49 recommendations, made by the SLC in December 2017, with Committee meetings on this in January and June 2018). Further information is available here. The work by the Committee and the SLC preceded the introduction of this Bill and were significant contributors to the decision to bring forward this legislation.

The Defamation and Malicious Publication (Scotland) Bill pages on the Scottish Parliament website can be accessed here or at www.parliament.scot/DMPBill.

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Greg Black

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