The House of Commons has rejected an attempt to amend the Defamation Bill so as to allow relatives of dead people to sue over ‘libellous’ stories about their loved ones.
Bishop Auckland Labour MP Helen Goodman moved an amendment which would have allowed a dead person’s relatives, siblings or offspring to sue the publisher of an article they considered defamatory up to 12 months after the death.
She told colleagues: “There was a moral convention in this country once upon a time that people did not speak ill of the dead. That general shared behaviour has collapsed to such a degree since the original law in the 19th century that we need to return to it.”
She cited the article by Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir which appeared after the death of Boyzone star Stephen Gately, and the case of the Watson family, who have been campaigning in Scotland for a change in the law after the publication of allegedly defamatory stories about their murdered daughter which they claim led to their teenage son’s suicide.
Ms Goodman told a committee stage hearing into the Bill: “We need to look again at the freedom to write what would be defamatory statements if the person were alive when they are deceased”.
“The events show that vicious character assassination based on lies is often more damaging to someone after death than to a living person, because they cannot answer back. It adds to the grief and sense of injustice felt by close relatives. It is time Parliament addressed the issue.”
But Newcastle-under-Lyme Labour MP Paul Farrelly said the issue was one of press standards rather than anything else, adding: “One of the unfortunate consequences of our libel law’s restrictiveness is that quite often the truth only comes out when a person is dead.
“I invite the committee to think about what may or may not have been reported after Robert Maxwell’s death. Had the amendment been in force, the full truth might not have come out for another year.”
Justice minister Jonathan Djanogly said it was a long-established legal principle that a deceased person could not be defamed because reputation was personal.
“Relatives of the deceased also have no right of action, unless the words used reflect on their own reputations,” he said.
“That reflects the central principle in civil proceedings generally, which is that a claim for damages can be brought only by the person who has suffered the injury, loss or, in this case, damage to his or her reputation as a result of the act or omission of another person.”
The committee voted by 11 to five to reject the proposed amendment.