UK Politics

Ian Hislop 'worried' by plans to limit libel juries

Private Eye editor Ian Hislop has said he is "worried" by proposals to limit the use of juries in some libel trials.

Mr Hislop told a parliamentary committee he felt juries often came to the right conclusion - while judges "have summed up the wrong way".

He also backed a suggestion that costs in libel cases should be capped at a proportion of final damages.

The committee is scrutinising a draft bill which aims to shake up libel laws in England and Wales.

The draft Defamation Bill removes the presumption that defamation trials will be heard by a jury - instead the judge will be given discretion to order a jury trial when it is "in the interests of justice".

The government says the right to trial by jury is rare in civil cases and there are concerns that it can mean issues which could have been resolved by a judge early on instead cannot be resolved until the trial.

'Very unhappy'

As the editor of the UK's best-selling satirical magazine, Mr Hislop has been involved in a number of high profile libel trials.

He told the committee: "Certainly the libel trials we have been in, I would have been very unhappy to see a judge on their own.

"If you think about something like Robert Maxwell, if you think about Jonathan Aitken, if you think about Jeffrey Archer - pretty often the judges have summed up the wrong way and the public, in the persona of the jury, has been examining matters of fact, truthfulness, trustworthiness and has come to what I thought was the right decision.

"I don't want a presumption against juries - I think in many cases that is a better way of doing it."

He argued that it was not juries that pushed up costs because the majority of money had been spent on legal costs before the case even reached trial.

"I'm worried about the idea of removing the jury in every case from the process on the grounds that they may not understand what you are doing, because a number of those major cases, they pretty much did understand what was going on and they made their judgement in a way that was quite different."

"There's a presumption at the start of any libel case that someone has a reputation - and juries don't necessarily feel that."

Committee chairman, Tory peer Lord Mawhinney, said it had been told that in routine defamation cases a judge should hear the case - but where a public figure or body was involved, there should be a jury.

'That'll cost you'

Asked if juries could be kept for special categories of defamation, Mr Hislop said he could live with it "just about - provided there was agreement, rather than you being overruled".

Mr Hislop told the committee the draft bill was "on the whole ... good" but he had hoped it would have been "more radical" and more focused on what was meant by "damage" to someone's reputation - and whether it was sufficiently serious to merit a defamation case.

He was critical of the high costs of libel cases - particularly when they were out of all proportion to the amount of damages paid out.

Mr Hislop said more should be done at an early stage in defamation cases to agree the meaning of what had been published - as defendants were often put in the position of having to to defend every possible meaning, which "whacks costs up" and dragged out the legal process.

There was some laughter as, asked why libel cases were so costly, he suggested it was because lawyers charged a lot of money, adding "including my own".

As he took advice from his lawyer, who accompanied him to the hearing, committee members joked: "That'll cost you."

He said judges tended to define public interest in favour of the claimant - rather than the defendant.

Asked how he defined public interest, he joked: "More or less anything I think should be printed."

And while he appeared to back the idea of compulsory mediation before cases went to court, he joked that he had not "done a lot of mediation".

"The party who usually doesn't want to settle is me," he added.

The magazine editor said it would be "helpful" to cap costs - adding that damages themselves were "not the major expense" and said the burden of proof should not be entirely on the defendant - and questions should be able to be asked about whether the claimant was telling the truth, had a reputation to protect and it had been damaged.

"I think it should be acceptable to question all those things and I think to some extent they should have to prove that."

Acknowledging that it was a difficult week to argue the case for freedom of the press, he added: "When this hoo-hah goes away there will still be a need for a press which are interested in pursuing stories which are in the public interest."

He said he had never sued for libel himself - despite scurrilous stories he said had been put about by Robert Maxwell and various conspiracy theories that appeared on internet forums discussing Private Eye stories.

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