Defamation law in the United Kingdom varies by jurisdiction.
Criminal libel in England and Wales was fully abolished by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.
Criminal libel (defamatory and obscene) in Northern Ireland, as in England and Wales, was abolished by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.
Defamation is not a criminal offence in Scotland.
Criminal Defamation of Public Officials
Criminal Defamation of the Head of State
Criminal Defamation of the State and its Symbols
Criminal Defamation of Foreign States and Symbols
Criminal Defamation of the Deceased
England, Wales, and Scotland: No provisions.
Northern Ireland: Despite attempts to include its repeal in the Coroners and Justice Act, blasphemous libel remains an offence in Northern Ireland.
Statistics on Application
England and Wales
In England and Wales, the tort of defamation is regulated under the Defamation Act 2013.
Successful complainants can be awarded compensatory, emotional and punitive damages. A defendant can be ordered to publish a summary of the court’s judgment (§12.1) and courts may also order the removal of the statement or an end to its distribution (§13).
Truth: The defendant must prove that the information published is “substantially true” (§2).
Public interest: The defendant must show that the information was “a statement on a matter of public interest” and that he or she “reasonably believed” that publishing statement was in the public interest (§4). The court must also take into account “editorial judgment” in determining whether it was reasonable for the defendant to have considered a statement to be in the public interest.
Honest opinion (fair comment): The statement, in general, must be an expression of an opinion on a fact, on any statement covered by qualified or absolute privilege, or on any matter of public interest (§3).
Privileged reporting: Fair and accurate reporting on the following bodies cannot incur liability for defamation: a legislature or government anywhere in the world; a government authority anywhere in the world; an international organisation or international conference; any press conference anywhere in the world on a matter of public interest; any national or international court; scientific or academic conferences, et al. (§7). Statements in peer-reviewed scientific or academic journals generally also cannot give rise to liability (§6).
The Defamation Act 2013 does not extend to Northern Ireland. Instead, Northern Ireland statutory defamation law derives from the Defamation Act (Northern Ireland) 1955 and from the Defamation Act 1996.
A prepared for the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly in June 2013 outlined in convenient table form the comparisons between English/Welsh defamation law and Northern Irish law. For reference, these include:
Unlike the Defamation Act 2013, Northern Irish law does not require a threshold of “serious harm”.
Northern Irish law does not provide for a defence of public interest; it provides defences of justification and fair comment instead of, as the Defamation Act 2013 now provides, truth and honest opinion.
Northern Irish law does not provide explicit protection against libel tourism, whereas the Defamation Law 2013 establishes that defamation claims can only be brought in English or Welsh courts if the respective jurisdiction constitutes the most appropriate place.
Northern Irish law does not provide a single publication rule.
Northern Ireland remains subject to some archaic legislation such as the Slander of Women Act 1891, which the Defamation Act 2013 abolished for England and Wales.
In addition to the defences of justification and fair comment, a defence of privilege and qualified privilege is provided in Northern Ireland by the Defamation Act 1996.
Defamation in Scotland is generally set forth in common law, although Scotland is to certain provisions of the Defamation Act 1952 and the Defamation Act 1996. The Defamation Act 2013 does not apply to Scotland.
Unlike England and Wales, Scots law does not allow for punitive damages.
Statutory defences in effect in Scotland are the defences of justification, fair comment, privilege, and qualified privilege.
• Truth (known as veritas)
• Rixa, which refers to “intemperate expressions used in argument”
• Fair retort, i.e. “repudiat[ing] defamatory statements by other people”
Media Cases and Case Law
Recent Legal Changes
Defamation Act 2013
The Defamation Act 2013 introduced a series of changes aimed at modernising English and Welsh libel legislation and at combating the jurisdiction’s reputation as a haven for “libel tourism”.
The Act was spurred into existence by the Libel Reform Campaign, comprised by English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense about Science, which fought successfully to reform the libel laws of England and Wales.
Some of the most significant changes are summarised here:
- The introduction of a “serious harm” principle, requiring both individuals and corporations to demonstrate that a statement has caused “serious harm” to their reputation or finances (§1)
- The replacement of the “Reynolds defence” ( a 10-point test on publishing unproven information in the public interest) with a more explicit defence of public interest (§4); the publisher no longer has to necessarily prove diligence or the absence of malice, although observers it likely that the courts will consider such factors
- A stipulation that claims may only be brought in England and Wales if courts there constitute “the most appropriate place”; this applies to complainants who are not resident in the UK, the EU, Norway, Iceland or Switzerland (§9)
- The general exemption of website operators from liability unless the operator acted with malice or failed to comply with a desist order, or when it is not possible to identify the author of the defamatory statement and the operator fails to respond to a notice of complaint (§5)
- The specification that defamation claims may only be brought against the author, editor or publisher of a statement unless “not reasonably practicable” (this is seen as in part a further defence for ISPs and social-media platforms) (§10)
- The enactment of a single-publication rule (§8)
- The introduction of a presumption in favour of a non-jury trial (§11), which is expected to help alleviate the problem of costly proceedings (see below)
- The repeal of the archaic Slander of Women Act 1891 (§14), which allowed a woman accused of unchastity or adultery to sue for defamation without needing to prove special damage
Northern Ireland libel reform (pending)
Reform of libel legislation in Northern Ireland is subject to ongoing discussion. Media reported earlier in 2014 on a movement in the UK Parliament to give the Defamation Act 2013 effect in Northern Ireland, although defamation is considered a devolved matter. A similar to the Defamation Act 2013 was introduced in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2013 by Mike Nesbitt, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. At the close of 2014, Finance Minister Simon Hamilton had referred the matter to the Northern Ireland Law Commission (NILC) for study, but the bill’s prospects uncertain. The NILC in November 2014 published a consultation paper which sought public comment by Feb. 20, 2015. However, it was unclear whether the NILC would be able to complete a full report, as the Commission itself was expected to be shuttered due to ongoing budget pressures just six weeks after the consultation period closed.
A 2015 survey conducted by the Libel Reform Campaign found significant public support in Northern Ireland for libel reform. 92 percent of respondents agreed that there should be a stronger public interest defence in Northern Ireland. 747 members of the public signed a petition calling for the full adoption of the English Defamation Act 2013 to Northern Ireland.
Notes and Acknowledgements
Information on defamation laws in Europe was collected by the International Press Institute (IPI) in collaboration with the School of Public Policy’s Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University in Budapest and their partners at the SHARE Foundation in Belgrade. (Read more about our partners here.)
The information contained in this database is for informational and advocacy purposes only. If you are a journalist facing a defamation claim, you should seek legal advice from a qualified attorney. However, if you are unable to find such an attorney, IPI may be able to assist you in doing so. Please contact us at ipi[at]freemedia.at.
Information on the United Kingdom was last updated in January 2015.