Apparently embarrassed by the ease at which complainants can win suits, or at least provoke settlements, England is reviewing it's libel laws. According to The New York Times, the standards for winning a libel suit in England are considerably different from what Americans are used to, a state of affairs that has lead to some very questionable results in libel claims.
In England, jurisdictional rules are very loose in libel cases, allowing, for example, authors selling less than two dozen books, or a cardiologist who made critical remarks about clinical trials on a website that could be seen in England, to be sued. Secondly, the legal standards used in libel cases in England are much lower than in America. In the States, the plaintiff has the burden of proof to show that a statement that was made by the defendant was false. Public officials have the additional burden of proving that the statement was made maliciously, with reckless disregard for the truth. These can potentially be a high set of standards to meet, but are necessary ones when so much is stake and settlements are so prevalent. In England, however, the defendant has the burden to prove that their statements are true, and complainants are not currently required to even show actual harm against them.
Such low standards for suits have several negative results. One is the aforementioned provoking of settlements regardless of defendant liability as the accused party chooses to avoid the time, cost, and embarrassment of trial. Another is the chilling of the media. These alone are worthy reasons to change the current standards. However, there are more. Though not necessarily noted in The Times piece, the additional suits that are attracted to Britain due to its low standards potentially clog up already crowded courts. Also, the current status of libel standards is woefully inadequate to handle the needs of the internet age, with websites, blogs, and twitter pages being updated constantly. This is not to say that the powerful, famous, or controversial should not be protected from malicious lies, but making the complainants show at the least actual harm would be a strong signal that England's legal system is flexible enough to evolve along with the technological world.
Reviewing libel laws in England is the right decision. American law was formed in a cradle of English common law, and the greatest of American jurists continued to borrow unabashedly from British court rulings long after independence was gained. Maybe this is a situation where America can return the favor, for if the British do indeed borrow from US standards for libel suits, it will create a much more favorable, and fair, environment for the press, academics and humble bloggers alike to operate in.