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London’s Libel Tourism Finds its Limits

Thursday, 6 February 2014

London has a great reputation for many positive attributes including culture, fashion and respect for the rule of law. Although the average layperson might not see the last of those as fitting with ‘London, New York, Paris’ moniker in quite the same way as the others, it is still an important asset that puts London ahead of many of its peers.

One unintended consequence of this legal prowess, which is not quite so positive, has been the development of ‘libel tourism’ whereby wealthy foreigners come to London to take advantage of our somewhat draconian libel laws, often to silence critics. They do so in the knowledge that the English courts rely on precedent when considering the facts of each case meaning arbitrary judgements based on interpretive views of the wider circumstances are less likely.

Despite this reputation for reliability in the field of libel, the High Court has recently demonstrated that it has reached its limits when it comes to accepting dubious foreign claimants. New legislation in the form of the Defamation Act 2013 should also help repel such unwelcome visitors in the future.

The Growth of London’s Libel Tourism

London’s embarrassing reputation for libel tourism has received increased attention in the press over the few years as a host of wealthy foreigners have arrived in the High Court to silence their detractors.

A combination of publishers, newspapers and free speech campaigners have expressed growing concern over the chilling effect that expensive libel claims have on free speech. By allowing foreigners to bring cases in London, it has been suggested that the UK’s libel laws have had a detrimental effect on free speech far beyond its borders.

Magnitsky Police Officer’s Libel Claim

In late 2013, the High Court struck a blow to libel tourism when it threw out two claims brought by foreigners, the most notable of which was that of Russian policeman Pavel Karpov. Karpov had attempted to sue Bill Browder, a UK fund manager over allegations made following the death in 2009 of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in police custody. In 2012 Magnitsky was posthumously convicted of tax evasion by a Russian court, a ruling condemned in Europe and the US.

In his dismissal of the case Mr Justice Simon commented that, “the claimant cannot establish a real reputation within this jurisdiction sufficient to establish a real and substantial tort,” adding, “the connection with this country is exiguous and therefore there is a degree of artificiality about his seeking to protect his reputation in this country.”

Libel Tourism: An Industry in Retreat

These cases combined with the introduction of the Defamation Act 2013 have been heralded as significant blows to libel tourism in the UK. The Act requires that the courts of England and Wales are, “clearly the most appropriate place in which to bring an action”. Trivial claims will also be harder to bring in future due to the requirement of “serious harm”.

For specialist advice in bringing or defending a defamation claim please contact Peter Gourri today by email or telephone 0207 611 4848.

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