Defamation reform moves forward

The First Minister announced that defamation reform will be included in the upcoming legislative session. The delay for reform may be over

September 5, 2019

In September, as part of the 2019 Programme for Government, the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon announced that the Defamation and Malicious Publications bill will be included in the upcoming legislative session in Scotland. For everyone who has joined us campaigning for defamation reform this is a huge step forward, ensuring reform cannot be delayed any longer.

In the outline of the Programme for Government, it states:

“The Bill will take forward the recommendations of the Scottish Law Commission and will simplify and modernise the law of defamation. The reforms will ensure that a more appropriate balance is struck between protecting reputation and freedom of expression. Amongst other changes, the Bill will recognise a defence of publication on a matter of public interest and ensure that no proceedings can be brought where a defamatory statement is made only to the person who is the subject of it.”

2019/20 Programme for Government

Read the full document here

This is an important moment for protecting free expression in Scotland, ensuring what is said or written is not controlled or silenced by the powerful, the wealthy and the thin-skinned. Defamation law has not been meaningfully reformed since 1996, leaving it inadequate and out-of-date, offering little clarity and few protections for everyone speaking out, both online and off.

Bringing forward reform will enable us to establish a serious harm threshold to dissuade vexatious actions, or those brought to silence legitimate criticism; a statutory public interest defence; increased protections for defenders against vexatious legal actions; better online protections and a single publication rule to ensure the time period within which a defamation action can be brought does not restart every time a link or post is shared or viewed online.

These reforms will bring Scots Law in line with international norms, reflect technological advances and robustly protect free expression for everyone, whether they are journalists, writers, scientists, academics, community activists, bloggers or casual social media users. This will ensure public discourse is shaped by the public, not powerful vested interests.

This is an important step for everyone who speaks out and speaks up in Scotland. For 23 years we have had to depend on out-dated and inadequate law, but after today’s announcement by the First Minister, reform is now just around the corner. Last month 181 writers and campaigners, including Ian Rankin, Sara Sheridan, Christopher Brookmyre, Karen Campbell, Christine de Luca, Zoe Wicomb, James Robertson and Zoe Strachan signed a letter to Nicola Sturgeon asking for her to prioritise reform. Thank you to everyone who put their name to this letter – this success is your success.

Scottish PEN looks forward to continuing the fight to protect free expression and ensuring we have adequate, modern and rights-respecting laws protecting everyone in Scotland.