The Scottish Newspaper Society has welcomed the inclusion of the Defamation & Malicious Publications (Scotland) Bil in the Scottish Government’s new Programme for Government published this week.
Over four years in the making, the proposed legislation was developed by the Scottish Law Commission under its chair Lord Pentland, with SNS director John McLellan serving on the original advisory group.
The bill updates the 1996 Defamation Act and if enacted will bring Scots defamation law more into line with England and Wales and with internationally-recognised standards. It includes a new “serious harm” threshold, and finally addresses the anomaly in Scots law where a statement need not be communicated to a third party to be defamatory.
It also introduces important measures such as the single publication rule to protect online archives, new defences of fair comment and honest opinion, a stronger “offer of amends” system and also shortens the limitation period to a year.
SNS director John Mclellan said: “Recent cases, such as the action against former Scottish Labour Party leader Kezia Dugdale, and several ongoing cases which have not yet gone to trial, have demonstrated the urgent need for Scotland’s defamation laws to be updated and we hope these measures will become law long before the end of this parliament in 2021.
“Lord Pentland is to be congratulated for bringing forward such badly-needed proposals which will finally bring this area of Scots law into the 21st Century and we are grateful to the Scottish Government for making sure the bill was included in its programme without undue delay.”
The Programme for Government says the bill will “take forward the recommendations of the Scottish Law Commission and will simplify and modernise the law of defamation. The reforms will ensure that a more appropriate balance is struck between protecting reputation and freedom of expression. Amongst other changes, the Bill will recognise a defence of publication on a matter of public interest and ensure that no proceedings can be brought where a defamatory statement is made only to the person who is the subject of it.”
The Scottish Newspaper Society has been part of the wider campaign for defamation reform run by the Scottish PEN, and its project manager Nik Williams said: “This is an important moment for protecting free expression in Scotland, ensuring what is said or written is not controlled or silenced by the powerful, the wealthy and the thin-skinned. Defamation law has not been meaningfully reformed since 1996, leaving it inadequate and out-of-date, offering little clarity and few protections for everyone speaking out, both online and off.”
The draft bill can be found here.