British lawmaker propose bill to reform libel laws, criticized for curtailing free speech

LONDON (AP) — A British lawmaker Thursday began a new attempt Thursday to reform the country's libel laws, long criticized for what is said to be a chilling effect on journalism and free speech.

Liberal Democrat Anthony Lester's proposed bill is intended to increase the burden of proof on those who sue for libel, forcing them to show evidence they have suffered substantial harm or financial loss.

"The time is overripe for Parliament to replace our patched-up archaic law with one that gives stronger protection to freedom of speech," said Lester, a human rights and civil liberties lawyer. "The whole idea is to strike a fairer balance between private reputation and public interest."

Though bills introduced by individual lawmakers rarely make it to the statute book, Lester's proposals could be taken up by Britain's coalition government, which has pledged to overhaul libel legislation.

English law gives much stronger protection to an individual's reputation than in the U.S., and places the burden of proof on the person being sued for libel rather than the claimant. These laws have enticed foreign celebrities and big businesses — including McDonald's — to sue for libel in Britain.

In 2006, actress Kate Hudson won a case against the National Enquirer, taking on the magazine's U.K. edition in a London court rather than pursuing the case in the U.S.

Lester's plan follows the failure in March of a previous attempt to push through reforms.

A committee of House of Commons legislators voted to delay proposed changes that would have sharply cut fees charged to both defendants and complainants by lawyers representing them in libel cases. Lawmakers said the reforms needed to be studied more carefully.

Media organizations have long complained that excessive legal fees mean they often cannot afford to defend themselves in defamation cases, diminishing free expression and curtailing investigative journalism. Some say they're simply unwilling to run potentially contentious stories because of the risk they could be sued.