Home Affairs Correspondent
A comprehensive package of measures designed dramatically to cut the number of libel trials and limit damages was published yesterday.
The Defamation Bill and the Damages Bill have been combined to meet widespread criticism that the libel laws have become a farce, a luxury of the rich and famous - and anger that some damages awards far outstrip sums awarded to accident victims who suffer serious disabling injuries.
The reforms introduced by Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor, include a new weeding-out process under which all claims would come before a judge at an early stage.
While the measure would not rule out a full-blown jury trial, the judge would decide whether the case can be dealt with under a quick, summary procedure or whether it should be listed for a trial with or without a jury. Under the shortened process, the judge would award damages up to a fixed ceiling of pounds 10,000.
There is also a new defence - an offer of amends - which would avoid the need for a trial if the defendant agreed to pay damages assessed by the judge.
The Lord Chancellor believes the measures, which will also apply to slander, would lead to many claims being resolved without juries. The package is designed to discourage the so-called "crock of gold" philosophy which encourages some people to press on with cases in the hope of securing massive damages. It is further designed to avoid delaying tactics by the media and to cut down appeals against the size of jury awards. …