Some Notes on the Act

Those of us brought up to believe that truth was an absolute justification in the matter of libel may be caught up short by section 8 of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. Magazine Law: A Practical Guide has the following piece of information that will be of interest to any blogger based in the UK (or indeed, who deals with subjects based in the UK):

Truth is a complete defence to an action for libel…The two possible exceptions to this principle are convictions regarded as ‘spent’ under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974…and cases of criminal libel…But even in such cases the defence of truth will be defeated only if the plaintiff can prove that publication was malicious; that there was no justifiable reason for reporting them; and that the journalist was simply being spiteful or had some other improper motive.

How this Act relates to the internet age is a question that remains unanswered. For example, here’s a report from the BBC News from 2004:

A cyclist who slashed 1,728 car tyres after being soaked by a motorist has been jailed for 16 months.

Ashley Carpenter, who admitted slashing the tyres in 10 days, was sentenced at Bournemouth Crown Court on Thursday.

The jailing for 16 months means that Carpenter’s conviction will be “spent” in 2014. Anyone using this information after that date risks actions against them based on the Act, even if it continues to be freely and widely available on the BBC website and elsewhere! In fact, even the BBC and this site might be liable. Even trickier is this example, from 2002:

A solicitor who stole and defaced road signs because they were in metric has been found guilty of theft and criminal damage…

However, bloggers beware: the conviction for theft was later quashed, while the conviction for criminal damage was later reduced from 50 hours community service (which would become spent after five years) to an absolute discharge (which would become spent after six months). Even giving his name today might therefore be libellous, even though it appears on the BBC site. Of course, a defence in this case could be that the person concerned was undertaking a political act, which is therefore part of the public historical record. But how can we be sure the judge would see it like that?

Of course, the Act was actually designed to protect private individuals from being forever tainted by past indiscretions. If I say “Ms X was convicted of shoplifting some years ago, as I discovered in an old newspaper”, and it is clear that all I want to do is to damage Ms X’s reputation, then the law will apply (although free-speech campaigners may find it an objectionable restriction). I’m currently not sure what would happen if I just wrote “to find out something interesting about Ms X, see the Evening Standard 6 Nov 1982!”

But what about a public figure whose past entanglement with the law might be of current political interest? Well, you may be able to make a strong case that you are not motivated by “malice” in revealing the details, but if the plaintiff is determined that information about an old conviction should not re-enter the public domain, then you’re going to need deep pockets if you want to stand your ground.

However, with so much old information now readily available online, this is clearly an antiquated Act in need of serious reform…

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