John Witherow: on libel reform panel. Photograph: Vicki Couchman/The Times
Jason Deans and Stephen Brook guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 27 January 2010 15.35 GMT
The Sunday Times editor John Witherow and a partner from the law firm Carter-Ruck are among those who have been appointed to a government panel considering changes to the law on libel, the lord chancellor, Jack Straw, said today.
Straw said the group, made up of senior lawyers, newspaper executives and scientists, would look into concerns that the current law was having a "chilling effect" on freedom of expression.
Members of the group include Witherow, the long serving editor of the Sunday Times; Andrew Stephenson, a partner at Carter-Ruck and the libel specialist; and Desmond Browne QC, former chairman of the Bar Council; Robin Esser, the executive editor of the Daily Mail; Jo Glanville, the editor of Index on Censorship; Tony Jaffa, the head of the media team at solicitors Foot Anstey; and Marcus Partington, the chair of the Media Lawyers Association and the legal director, Mirror Group Newspapers.
Also on the panel are Jonathan Heawood, the director of English PEN; Gillian Phillips, the director of editorial legal services at the Guardian – part of the group that also publishes MediaGuardian.co.uk; the Medical Research Council chief executive, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, and Sarah Jones, the BBC head of litigation and intellectual property.
The libel law review group will be chaired by Rowena Collins Rice, the Ministry of Justice's chief legal officer, and is expected to report in the middle of March.
Last month the ministry set formal terms of reference for the review: to "consider whether the law of libel, including the law relating to libel tourism, in England and Wales needs reform, and if so to make recommendations as to solutions".
The wide terms of reference will also allow the working party to look into whether the burden of proof should be shifted from defendant to plaintiff, as is the case in countries such as the US.
Other issues for examination include whether large and medium-sized corporations would have to prove malicious falsehood for a libel claim to succeed. It may also look at the implications of the internet for libel.
The working party would also address issues raised in a joint report prepared in November by Index on Censorship and English PEN, a charity that supports persecuted writers. John Kampfner, chief executive of Index, warned at the time that if the government did not reform the laws "we're at risk of becoming a global pariah".
The new panel will also look at considering the case for capping the level of damages that courts can award. The Index/PEN joint report recommended a libel damages cap of £10,000. The inquiry originally looked as if it would be confined to the issue of "libel tourism", but it seems officials believed it would not be possible to restrict the inquiry in this way.
The only issue that will be excluded are the costs of defamation proceedings because they are already the subject of a separate justice ministry consultation led by the court of appeal judge Lord Justice Jackson.
Earlier this month Jackson singled out media law as one of the areas where costs were highest in a 557-page report on the cost of all civil court proceedings.
Jackson said media organisations regularly paid four times the cost of damages in libel cases because of the success fees charged by lawyers and the insurance fees.
Straw subsequently published proposals last week to cut the fees lawyers who sue the media can charge by 90%.
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