Courts should not handle trivial defamation cases, attorney general says

Christian Porter will examine other methods to settle disputes, following review into Australia’s defamation laws

Trivial defamation cases should be kept out of the courts, the federal attorney general, Christian Porter, has said.

A review of Australia’s defamation laws was launched last year by the council of attorneys general in an attempt to resolve growing concerns that they were complex and failed to protect public interest journalism.

Following the release of the attorneys general discussion paper this week, Porter said there was a “screaming obviousness” that a new threshold test was needed.

“There is an astonishing amount of defamation action going on at the lowest level of our courts – neighbours against neighbours, things said by one person to three other Twitter users,” he told the Australian. “It’s quite incredible … and I think its merits, in terms of its effects on the litigants and its effects on the court system, are highly questionable.”

Guardian Australia reported last year that in the 10 years between 2008 and 2017, media organisations in Australia defended or partially defended almost 300 cases in the courts.

Of the 51% of cases that were settled during this period, a conservative calculation would be that plaintiffs were paid out at least 70% of the time.

After this week’s federal court decision in the defamation action brought by Chinese businessman Chau Chak Wing against the Sydney Morning Herald, which was owned by Fairfax Media at the time, the media union called for an urgent overhaul of Australia’s outdated defamation laws.

A federal court judge ordered the Herald to pay $280,000 in damages to Chau for a 2015 article linking him to a US bribery case.

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance media federal president, Marcus Strom, said the decision brought a “chilling effect on legitimate public interest journalism”.

Australia: @withMEAA calls for an overhaul of defamation laws "The defamation system is stacked against Australian journalists. It makes their job of shining a light into public interest matters all the more difficult."

— IFEX (@IFEX) February 25, 2019

“The defamation system is stacked against Australian journalists,” Strom said. “It makes their job of shining a light into public interest matters all the more difficult.

“The system has become unworkable. In fact, our current laws inhibit the public’s right to know and rather than guaranteeing fairness, Australia’s defamation laws are being used as a weapon to threaten and attack legitimate reporting.”

Porter said he would examine other methods to settle disputes, such as having material quickly ­removed from the internet or ­administrative arbitration.

In 2017, the average damages awarded and settlement paid was $137,500, and that is discounting the erroneously high $4.7m awarded to Rebel Wilson by the Victorian trial judge, later reduced on appeal to $600,000.

The actor was left with less than 12% of the record payout originally awarded after being told to hand back the majority of funds to Bauer Media in September 2017. The defamation trial involved a series of articles that made her out to be a liar.


Amanda Meade

The GuardianTramp

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