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Defamation: New libel laws come into force in England and Wales

The much-awaited Defamation Act 2013 finally came into force in England and Wales on 1 January 2014, reports the BBC.

The changes were hailed as a major advancement for defamation law in the UK, which had long been criticised for stifling debate on scientific discoveries and advancements, and for being unfairly biased in favour of the rich who could intimidate others with the money to fund long court cases.

Under the changes contained in the Defamation Act 2013, claimants seeking redress for libel will have to prove to a judge that they have suffered 'serious harm' in order to progress their case.

Previously harm was assumed once a claimant had proved their case, and it was for the defence to prove that no harm had occurred.

The Defamation Act 2013 will also protect academics and scientists who publish material in peer-reviewed journals criticising commercial advancements from the deep pockets of major corporations who could previously use libel law to silence their critics.

The Act includes statutory defences for public interest, allowing someone who has committed a libel to avoid prosecution if they can prove that the disclosure was for the public benefit.

The Act also targets 'libel tourism', by making sure that claims with little connection to England and Wales cannot be tried here, as the generosity of the UK courts had led those from abroad to head to the UK to bring their court case.

Justice minister Shailesh Vara said of the Defamation Act 2013: "As a result of these new laws, anyone expressing views and engaging in public debate can do so in the knowledge that the law offers them stronger protection against unjust and unfair threats of legal action."

Supporters of libel law reform have described the Act as a 'major step'.