For all the injustices and seemingly endless unfairness that can permeate everyday life, it’s nice to know that the same life can sometimes eventually deal the everyman (or woman) a fair(er) hand.
Yep, that’s right folks – the United Kingdom may soon be putting an end to libel tourism; the awful and infuriating practice reserved only for the richest of the rich. And I have to say that it’s about damn time. That type of forum shopping is worst than how Tootsie Rolls taste. Seriously, any candy that is purported to taste like chocolate should actually contain at least some chocolate inside of it.
Awful candy aside, libel tourism is a serious issue, especially for those of you who are like me and harbor a resounding hatred for all frivolous lawsuits. The article I linked to does a pretty poor job of explaining the concept behind the practice to anyone whose last name isn’t immediately followed by Esq., so I’ll try to explain it sans the legalese.
Libel tourism is when a plaintiff attempts to sue a person or business entity (such as a magazine or newspaper) for libel in the United Kingdom in order to increase their chances of winning their lawsuit. The reason that plaintiffs choose the UK courts to hear their libel lawsuits is because the UK’s libel laws are extremely plaintiff friendly.
Unlike in most countries, the UK’s defamation laws are very board. Essentially all a plaintiff must do to win a libel (written defamation) or slander (oral defamation) lawsuit is prove that a comment said or article written by the defendant about the plaintiff would be likely to make the average person think worse of the plaintiff.
Now, while this may initially sound like a good standard to measure defamation, the problem is that, in practice, from a legal perspective this could theoretically encompass almost any negative statement. For example, if a magazine writer writes that Kate Hudson looks dangerously skinny, anyone who reads that would probably think less of Hudson because the article insinuates she may have an eating disorder, and thus Hudson would be able to sue for libel in the UK and win. Sounds crazy and impossible, right? Well, it’s not.
To make matters worst, the UK’s defamation laws also presumes any negative statements made are false, meaning the burden of proof is on the defendant to show what was said or written about the plaintiff is true or a fair commentary. This combined with the UK’s generous contingency fee agreements (plaintiffs pay no money to their lawyers unless they win), all of this creates the perfect storm for libel tourism.
By comparison, American defamation law for public figures as defined in New York Times v. Sullivan requires the plaintiff to prove that both the statement about the figure is false and that it was said or published maliciously. This rule makes winning a defamation suit in America incredible expensive and difficult. It also makes the UK the perfect place for celebrities and public figures the world over to flock to the country to sue anyone who pisses them off.
But, what you may be wondering now is how these people can sue a defendant if neither party actually lives in the UK. Well, that’s the thing with suing people in a foreign country like the UK; as long as you can show you suffered harm there and the defendant was the cause of it, if the country allows it, you can sue under their law. And the UK allows exactly that.
This is why libel tourism is so dangerous, because literally everyone and every press outlet can be liable to a wealthy person’s personal vendetta. However, if the UK defamation reforms go through, this will all finally be a thing of the past. The changes would essentially modernize the UK’s old defamation laws and jurisdictional rules to be more in line with other countries around the world.
This is a great thing because let’s face it, who other than rich celebrities and business people can afford to sue someone or some company in the UK every time they get pissed off?