As Imperial alumnus Simon Singh prepares to return to College to give a guest lecture on the libel laws in science of which he has fallen foul of, the Government have announced the commencement of a working group on libel reform.

Singh announced his support of potential reform to guests of the _felix’_s 60th anniversary dinner last Saturday, and it is obvious to see why.

He is currently awaiting a hearing at the Court of Appeal on the 22nd of February 2010; the British Chiropractic Association are suing him for comments he made in his Guardian column in April 2008. He stands to lose a small fortune if the final verdict does not go his way.

“The decision could go either way. We are still only arguing about the meaning of the article, so we remain a long way from the trial itself and settling the whole matter. I suspect that this libel battle could continue for at least another year,” he told felix.

Though, even if the final verdict falls in his favour, he himself admits in cases such as his, he is likely to lose a substantial amount of money anyway.

In this way, scientists and journalists have argued that current libel laws in England and Wales are severely stifling the advancement of scientific debate and free speech. In a case with two sides to the argument (as in the majority of scientific or medical discussions), English libel laws have been heavily criticised for encouraging the accused side of responding with defamation or slander lawsuit claims, rather than putting their own argument beyond reproach with relevant scientific evidence.

The formation of the working group, led by Justice Secretary Jack Straw, was announced in the House of Lords. Jack Straw called the current laws of which Simon Singh is suffering “unbalanced” and in need of a “radical change”, whilst freedom of speech campaigners are lobbying firm proposals for the upcoming reforms in English libel laws.

Science-specialised journalist, TV producer and author Simon Singh fell victim to the ill-balanced libel laws in April 2008 when he published an article on the Guardian website called “Beware the spinal trap.” The article was in response to Chiropractic Awareness Week 2008, and condemned the (BCA) for promoting treatments that he claimed were “bogus”.

Though he freely admitted chiropractic treatment can help cure localised back problems, he stated there “is not a jot of evidence” for the efficacy of chiropractic treatment with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying.

Subsequently, the BCA filed for libel against Singh, and contended that his comments on the national newspaper’s website have “seriously injured its credit and reputation”. The BCA made it clear that they are seeking damages from Singh personally, and not from the Guardian.

Though The Guardian initially backed Singh’s case as the publisher of his article, they soon pulled out to leave Singh standing in the courts alone.

On Sense for Science’s (a charitable trust that promotes fair and balanced debate in science) website, Singh reasoned with The Guardian’s decision.

“To a large extent I understand The Guardian’s position and its decision,” he stated. However, critics of English libel laws claim it is not a situation journalists and authors should have to swallow.

Media groups, as well as individuals defending libel claims, can lose six-figure sums in covering legal costs alone. “No win no fee” rulings are to blame, putting the losing side heavily into the red. Simon Singh has reportedly already had to find £100,000 to just unsuccessfully defend himself in front of Judge David Eady, the UK’s leading judge on libel and slander issues, in a preliminary hearing at the Courts of Justice in May 2009. The damages awarded to the successful party in such a case as the BCA vs. Simon Singh can easily be dwarfed by the legal costs incurred of running the trial. Singh, amongst many others, worries these costs are stifling ability to defend respectable work.

He said: “The current libel laws force many academics and writers to back down on matters that they believe to be accurate; this is simply because they do not have the funds to back their beliefs. Free speech should not depend on whether or not someone is rich or powerful.”

During _felix_’s 60th anniversary celebratory dinner, in which Singh was a guest speaker, he endorsed charities dedicating support to fair journalistic freedom of speech, namely English Pen, a British-based international charity that backs persecuted writers. Together with Index on Censorship, an anti-censorship charity, English Pen has released a report outlining suggestions for the Government’s reform working group that is expected to produce the majority of its fruits within the next couple of months.

The report directly relates to the financial imbalance in libel action. They suggest a cap of £10,000 on libel payouts, and drastically minimising legal costs incurred by the losing party. They also suggest a shift of the burden of proof to the claimant. The claimant, the BCA in Singh’s case, would first have to actually prove that Singh’s comments had “defamed” their reputation before the hearing could continue. It would effectively add an extra layer of protection on the accused, and a fairer trial that would mean both sides of the claim would have to prove something.

The campaigners are also pushing reforms to prevent “libel tourism”; Singh also drew attention to this issue during his short speech this weekend. Current English libel laws are poorly designed so that they allow any publication distributed in the UK to be subject to libel action under English courts, and not the courts of the publication’s origin. American newspapers have threatened to stop their limited circulation in London if the native libel laws continue to so heavily favour libel action against them.

“If we don’t act we’re at risk of becoming a global pariah. There are US States who view English libel law as so damaging to free speech they have passed laws to effectively block the decisions of English judge,” said John Kampfner, the CEO of Index on Censorship.

“Libel reform is now an active issue the politicians are willing to listen and it up to the public to make enough noise to move the issue up the political agenda,” he said to felix.

“I want to explain what is wrong with English libel laws and then address any doubts that people might have about whether or not reform is necessary. I am keen that as many people as possible at Imperial sign the petition for libel reform. As they stand, the libel laws restrict scientific debate, so reforming the libel laws should be an important issue for both staff and students.”