Last week I wrote that a court in British Columbia, Canada worryingly asserted jurisdiction over the alleged libel of a Canadian man by a US based newspaper website. Now the High Court in Canada has gone against this ruling and decided that it can’t assert jurisdiction in a case (see this report from The Guardian) involving the Washington Post.
The decision in the Canadian case doesn’t set binding precedent for courts outside Canada but the precedent is likely to be reviewed by the courts of other nations and could very well prove influential in their decisions about jurisdiction in internet libel cases. This is good news for internet publishers.
So how much danger is there that website publishers will fall prey to a libel claim? Not much actually, at least in the UK. Libel cases are extremely costly to bring before the courts (and to defend against) but legal aid is not provided for defamation cases. Since 1998, some solicitors [in a move that has been criticised] have been willing to take libel cases on a "no win no fees" basis and this, according to research undertaken by legal publisher Sweet & Maxwell, has led to an increase in libel cases brought before the UK courts. But there still aren’t many – 96 libel cases were brought before the High Court in 2000, the highest number on record for a single year. There could, however, be more cases than that. Since the Woolf reforms, those bringing smaller claims (<£10,000) of defamation can enter into a "fast-stream" process which can lead to restitution in the form of a published apology and/or financial compensation capped at £10,000. This process can lead to many cases being dealt with before they reach the High Court and – importantly – falling beneath the radar of Sweet & Maxwell’s research.
None of this means that internet publishers, or anyone for that matter, should worry less about the implications of being the target of a libel suit. Libel cases are complex and expensive to bring before the court and few actually make it before the jury (defamation cases are heard by a jury). However, it’s likely that most cases are now being dealt with by the fast track system so the costs, risks, and rewards are all less than in High Court cases. Potentially, as word gets out about the fast track system and "no win no fees" legal providers, more potential claimants could come forward. Luckily those claims won’t be for the astronomical rewards often seen in High Court cases. The issue of jurisdiction in internet libel cases is probably far from over although the Canadian case above certainly helps move things in the right direction for web publishers (although perhaps not for those defamed by them!).
So keep worrying, but let’s keep it all in perspective.
[The above post is for informational purposes only and doesn’t constitute legal advice. You wouldn’t let a random person off the street give you brain surgery so why let a random blogger explain the law to you?! Contact a qualified solicitor before acting upon any information contained here.]
More from Cybersoc on user generated content and the law, message board libel, etc