Wednesday, December 01, 2004

TT Arvind over at UEA's law blog, Displacement of Concepts, seems to think everyone needs to worry about English defamation law, in the wake of the outcome of the UK Court of Appeal Lewis v King case a few weeks ago.

I notice that my link to the decision at the UK Court Service now finds a page that tells you that the page has been moved due to a re-structuring of the website and gives a link to the Court Service home page. After an irritating 10 minutes searching I gave up and looked up the decision at the exellent Bailii site, where I located it in 10 seconds. The UK Court Service has a "Tell us what you think" link on their homepage, so I did, possibly unfairly? I've found them very useful in the past.

Anyway, after that unnecessary distraction, back to the subject at hand. TT Arvind also raised another defamation decision, Richardson v Schwarzenegger in the UK High Court, shortly after the Lewis decision. Both cases related to alleged defamatory statements in the US later published on the Internet. The Richardson decision deals with jurisdiction in Internet defamation cases from point 19 to point 31. The High Court judge, Mr justice Eady, said that

"First, it is well settled now that Internet publication takes place in any jurisdiction where the words are read or downloaded: see e.g. Gutnick v Dow Jones [2002] HCA 56; Lewis v King [2004] EWCA Civ 1329. There is no 'single publication rule' applying to trans-national libels."

Point 24. gives his clinching argument in favour of asserting jurisdiction over the alleged defamation - the claiment is a UK citizen, who works, resides and has an established reputation in the UK and has no comparable connections with the US or other jurisdictions.

And the UEA blog sums up the rest of the decision quite nicely,

"As the judge pointed out, in essence the court was being asked to subject to its jurisdiction a foreign spokesman for a foreign politician who was asked in a foreign location during a foreign domestic election campaign by a foreign newspaper to respond to a number of allegations, which he did with a generic statement not specifically naming the claimant. It was being asked to do this only because he could, at the time, have foreseen that that statement would be published on the internet and subsequently republished in England. Yet the court - despite its obvious sympathy for the defendant - held that under English law, this is exactly what it was required to do. The principles of legal responsibility for publication were settled, and an application of these made it clear that English courts could exercise jurisdiction."

And TT Arvind is concerned about the overall effect of the Lewis and Richardson cases:

"So let's put these two rulings together. If you say anything about anyone who has a reputation in England, and you could have foreseen that that statement would go up on the web, you're likely to be sued for libel in England. It doesn't matter that everyone concerned was in the US, it doesn't matter that you were talking to a US newspaper with no print circulation or target audience in England, it doesn't matter that what you said was permitted comment in US law and dealt with mainly US issues. You could still be dragged through expensive and lengthy proceedings in the English courts. Notwithstanding the protestations of the court in Lewis, a free-for-all is exactly what this creates.

On the bright side, though, this could mean that England is on its way to becoming a haven for American celebrities frustrated by the difficulty public figures have in suing for defamation in the US. If anyone wants to look for employment openings in libel litigation in London, this would be a good time."

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