The House of Commons yesterday considered the Defamation Bill and rejected the Lords amendment limit the ability of corporations to sue for libel. Lords Amendment No.2 was entitled “Non-natural persons” and provided that companies could only sue for libel if they could “show that the publication of the words or matters complained of has caused, or is likely to cause, substantial financial loss to the claimant”. After a short debate the House approved a Government motion to disagree with Amendment No.2 by 298 votes to 230.
However, in the course of her speech, the Justice Minister Helen Grant said that she was “aware of the strength of feeling that exists on this matter and on whether the Bill should contain a provision requiring non-natural persons trading for profit to show substantial financial loss”. She confirmed that the Government was
“prepared to consider actively that aspect of the Lords amendment further, and we will listen carefully to the views expressed in both Houses“.
The vote was condemned by Libel Reform campaigners and described by the Guardian under the rather misleading headline “Key libel reform thwarted as Conservatives block defamation bill”
As we pointed out in a post on Sunday, the version of the “Non-natural persons” clause inserted by the House of Lords did not entirely reflect the recommendation of the Joint Committee on the Defamation Bill in that it did not extend the “non-profit” exemption to all companies but only to “other non-natural persons”.
The Commons agreed to remove the House of Lords “Puttnam amendments” without a vote and approved the remaining Amendments, 3 to14. In relation to the amendment to the defence of “Publication in the Public Interest” – which substituted a test of “reasonably belief” in public interest for the previous version “acting responsibly”. As suggested in our earlier post, the Minister did make a “Pepper v Hart” statement about this clause, saying
“My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) has tabled an amendment proposing that the test should be whether the defendant had reasonably decided that publication was in the public interest. That point was debated in the other place, and I believe that the concern underlying his amendment might be that the current wording, “reasonably believed”, could make the test too subjective and result in arguments about the defendant’s motive. I can give him a clear reassurance that we do not consider these amendments to be justified. The defendant’s belief and his motive are not the same thing.
The courts have made it clear in cases such as Flood that considerations about motive are usually irrelevant, so it is highly unlikely that they would entertain them if any such arguments were to arise. We are satisfied that our wording accurately captures the essence of the Flood judgment. In addition, the emphasis that the Government have placed—in debates, and which I reiterate today—on our intention to reflect Flood will leave the courts in no doubt that that is the case”. (emphasis added)
The Bill will now return to the House of Lords under the “ping pong” procedure.