Imagine if your healthcare was managed poorly, and a blog or a tweet about it prompted a lawyers letter!
No, not a day where we pick someone to defame. Instead it is the final parliamentary debate on the Defamation Bill.
Following this process has been a great way to watch how law-making really happens. In this case, the Government published a draft Bill for consultation. The proposed law was then debated on the floor of the House of Commons, then by a smaller group of MPs in a Public Bill Committee (days 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5), then again in the House of Commons. A similar process took place in the House of Lords, with a more generalised debate preceding detailed scrutiny in a Grand Committee (days 1, 2, 3 and 4), followed by more debates.
Now, the amendments made to the Bill by each House are being debated and accepted by the other. Today, the House of Lords have one final aspect of the Defamation Bill to consider, which is the limits that should be placed on ‘non-natural persons’ (i.e. companies and associations) that wish to sue.
The Government have already agreed that a corporation must show financial loss if they want to claim that they have suffered serious harm, but is still dragging its feet on what access private companies delivering taxpayer-funded services should have to the libel law.
Currently, central government and local councils cannot sue their citizens! This is established by the common-law Derbyshire principle, which protects unhibited criticism of democratically elected institutions and their agencies. However, the trend towards contracting out public services to private companies means that this principle has been undermined. For example, you can criticise a publically run prison, or a local council’s waste collection service… but if you criticise a private prison or a sub-contracted bin collection service, then you run the risk of a libel threat!
With the reforms to the NHS meaning more services will be commissioned from private companies, this loophole will only get bigger. Imagine if your healthcare was managed poorly, and a blog or a tweet about it prompted a lawyers letter!
This afternoon, the House of Lords will be debating this issue and hopefully they will vote to fix it in the Defamation Bill. I will be watching the debate online on the Houses of Parliament website.