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Plans to allow poor claimants to not pay defendant’s costs if they lose libel case could have “chilling effect” on free speech

Plans which could see people of ‘modest means’ not have to pay the defendant’s costs if they lose a libel case could have a “chilling effect” on free speech and “open the floodgates” on bringing about cases, a lawyer has warned.

Niri Shan, the head of media law at Taylor Wessing, said: “If there is no cost downside to a claimant bringing a case, then it might open the floodgates. We need to think about this very carefully because the consequences could result in a chilling effect on free speech.

“You might find yourself in a situation where a newspaper thinks it’s got a good case, and the merits of the case would dictate they should defend it, but if they are not able to recover their costs from the other side then they might question whether it is worth it."

This comes as Helen Grant, the Justice Minister, announced she was backing Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendation for “costs protection” in defamation cases, to make it easier for individuals to sue large media organisations.

The move would, however, work both ways, and protect individuals and small media organisations if they were contesting a defamation case brought by a wealthy celebrity.

The government also said the move could lead to lawsuits being settled earlier, as a claimant would lose their protection against paying the other side’s legal costs if they insisted on going to trial after a reasonable offer of damages was made.