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British libel law reforms tackle scientists' concerns

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The British government has begun reforms to the country's defamation laws with the publication of a new Defamation Bill.

The Bill is designed to increase the protection of free speech, allow quicker recourse for those who have been genuinely defamed and bring an end to "libel tourism", says the government. The changes come in response to concerns from scientists, non-governmental organisations and the media that the current law stifles investigative journalism and academic debate through the threat of long and expensive libel proceedings.

'The new rules will clamp down on trivial claims and so-called “libel tourism”. By requiring claimants to show that “serious harm” was done to their reputation the new rules will ensure that only serious cases are brought,' said justice secretary Kenneth Clarke.

Among other things, the Bill will: introduce a new procedure to help claimants identify the authors of defamatory statements on the internet; stop repeated claims being brought against a publisher about the same or similar material by introducing a single publication rule; limit the situations in which secondary publishers such as booksellers can be sued; and give additional protection against libel claims to peer-reviewed material published in scientific and academic journals. The Bill will also enable the courts to order publications which have committed libel to print a summary of the court’s judgment.