Scotland's main law reform body has backed the launch of a drive to overhaul the country's creaking defamation rules.

More than 100 prominent writers, launching The Herald's Freedom of Speech campaign yesterday, warned that current legislation was having a chilling effect on what they could say.

The Scottish Law Commission is already reviewing legislation amid concerns that the country had fallen behind changes in England and Wales that make it harder for the rich and powerful to sue their critics.

Chairman Lord Pentland yesterday "welcomed the interest and support" for change.

The judge, who as Paul Cullen, was a Conservative Lord Advocate, said: ‘We are well-advanced with our work in the important and sensitive area of defamation law reform and are on course to publish a detailed discussion paper in the early part of next year.

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"This will provide a framework for what we are confident will be a lively and open public debate about freedom of speech and related issues in modern Scotland and the role of the law in safeguarding these rights.

"There has been important recent reform in England and Wales with the Defamation Act 2013 and there is a need to consider in detail the extent to which that serves as a suitable model for reform of Scots law.

"In the light of the consultation exercise, the Scottish Law Commission will make recommendations to the Scottish Government on the need for and content of legislation.’

The Scottish Government does not need to adopt the Commission's recommendations.

The SNP initially rejected moves to reform libel laws along the lines of England and Wales, largely because Scottish courts had not seen the huge growth in frivolous actions that English ones had.


However, crucially, that decision means that Scotland does not have an English-style "serious harm" test for legal actions for defamation.

It also means Scots law has not been updated since the boom in the internet and social media, leaving online news sites and uses of social media like Twitter, Tripadvisor and Mumsnet very vulnerable.

Prominent Government supporters are now clamouring for change and backing calls from The Herald and writers' group Scottish Pen for reform.

Solicitor Aamer Anwar said: "We have in recent years seen a chilling effect on free speech with the libel laws.

"While the sordid activities of certain tabloids meant that public sympathy is not with writers, that is deeply unfair to the vast majority of writers and journalists.

"In essence what it means that the rich and powerful remain immune from scrutiny, after all they are the only ones who are able to use archaic laws to protect their dirty secrets but more often than not mere criticism is not allowed.

"In a modern 21st century legal system that claims to value free speech it is essential that we take on board the concerns highlighted by Scottish Pen and reform our antiquated defamation laws."

Former Labour MP Tom Greatrex said: "I hope we can catch up with England & Wales on this. Law needs to be fit for purpose."

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We look forward to the outcome of the Scottish Law Commission’s consideration of defamation law reform and we will consider fully the terms of any report produced on this important issue.

“We will continue to engage with a range of stakeholders to inform the Scottish Government’s position on any potential reform of defamation law.”

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