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by Jenni Davidson
17 January 2020
MSPs seek views on update to defamation law in Scotland

Newspapers - image credit: PA Images

MSPs seek views on update to defamation law in Scotland

MSPs are seeking views on the first major update to defamation law in Scotland in nearly 25 years.

The Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee is taking evidence on the Defamation and Malicious Publication Bill, which proposes substantial changes to the law for the first time since 1996.

The bill is intended to bring defamation law into the internet age as well as clarifying current legislation by bringing different pieces of statute in Scots and common law together in one place.

Defamation is a saying something about someone that is untrue and is likely to damage that person or company’s reputation in the eyes of others.

It covers most verbal and written statements, including those made on social media by ordinary members of the public, as well as by news publishers, website owners and commentators.

Under civil law it is possible for an individual or a business to sue for damages for defamation, although there are also a number of defences aimed at protecting free speech and the ability to express an opinion or criticism.

The Defamation and Malicious Publication Bill aims to balance freedom of expression with allowing people to defend their reputation against damaging, false or malicious claims.

Among the changes if the bill is passed, the new law would set a test for ‘serious harm’ to reputation, confirm that public bodies cannot bring defamation cases and clarify the defences that can be used.

These defences would be renamed ‘truth’, ‘honest opinion’ and ‘publication on a matter of public interest’.

It would also reduce the timescale for raising a defamation court action from three years to one year.

Speaking as the call for views was launched, committee convener Margaret Mitchell said: “The tension that can arise between freedom of expression and protecting reputation has been a key concern of the law for many decades.

“New technologies, such as the internet and social media, provide new dimensions and challenges.

“Consequently, the law on defamation in Scotland is found across both legislation and case law.

“We want to ensure that the right balance between competing tensions has been struck and that in this era of mass digital publishing the proposals are workable.

“As ever, the detail matters, and the committee intends to scrutinise the proposals closely.”

The call for views is open until 13 March and the Justice Committee would like to hear from the public, media organisations, internet businesses, legal experts and others.

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