Belfast: judicial junkyard to the stars?

Here’s one that flew right under my radar, but Brendan O’Neill reports that Britney Spears took a case through the Belfast courts to get at the National Enquirer newspaper. And she’s not the only one. It seems Belfast and London are popular venues because the UK libel laws are draconian compared to those in the States:

It’s bad for those of us who live in Britain [sic] permanently. These libel tourists are helping to prop up our illiberal, antidemocratic, and “repugnant” libel laws, which are an offense to free speech and open debate. Other stars, including singers Whitney Houston and Paula Abdul, are also reportedly set to sue in Belfast.

Thanks to Christine for the heads up!

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • heck

    and who was it who was proud to be british because of its free press?

  • Resolve

    It’s true that London (and, now Belfast) is the libel capital of the world (it is also one of the areas of the law that I am most passionate about, and plan on working in)… indeed, American journalists refer to London as “A Town named Sue”… but everywhere is draconian when compared to the USA. Their freedom of speech is guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, with very few exceptions and limitations. This is my preferred approach, though British law has much to be said in its favour (especially since the incorporation of the ECHR into British law in the Human Rights Act 1998).. in practice, whilst not perhaps in statute, we have a “tort of privacy”… effectively we do, at any rate… we need only read the recent House of Lords judgements in the Naomi Campbell v MGN case to see this in operation.

    Like all these human rights issues, it is a matter of balancing competing rights. Different jurisdictions strike the balance in different places, and depending on where the balance is struck, the problems/fallout/side effects differ – but there are, nevertheless, always problems when balancing competing rights. In this debate, the rights to be balanced are “freedom of speech v privacy” or, the individual’s right to protection of reputation v the freedom of the press. It is something integral to British culture, that the USA have felt themselves capable of disregarding – but this is tied to their culture.

    People like Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones, etc. bring their cases in London because it there that they have most chance of winning. And winning extraordinary compensation (perhaps grossly disproportionate to the harm caused… On this point, a 2000 case between a Russian oligarch named Boris Berezovsky and an American Business magazine called “Forbes” took place in London (as opposed to in the USA, where, because of the 1st Amendment, his chances of success would have been minimal) although the dispute was between foreigners and had nothing to do with Britain.

    But i wouldn’t exactly call it “archaic”, as this article does (not to mention Geoffrey Robertson, in “Media Law” (Penguin)…

    p.s. a main reason for Britney Spears’ choice of Belfast was probably the solicitor of choice in many libel cases, Paul Tweed, who works out of Belfast… he is currently working for her on this case, afaik…

  • Resolve

    If interested, check this…

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  • Resolve

    Apologies, i didn’t understnd the instructions on how to hyperlink… could someone maybe explain it to me?

  • I found it interesting that this story was published in the Christian Science Monitor

    and found out more about the CSM here

  • Gerry Lvs Castro

    If Britney’s coming over in person, I’d just like to say I’ve got a spare bedroom and she’s more than welcome anytime.

  • carlosblancos

    Think this was in the Tele as well.

  • St John Smythe

    Was this the magnificent success which Mr Tweed has attempted to portray? The BBC report ‘a published apology, but no cash damages’ which Mr Tweed called a ‘rare, if not unprecedented gesture’. I am not a libel expert but I doubt that.
    Is this Mr Tweed a friend of the Belfast libel barrister who erroneously teaches that a letters page is not subject to libel law? It would not surprise me.

  • na

    It is completely unacceptable that non-nationals get to waste taxpayers money by using our courts for their gripes. If they aren’t resident and merely using a more accomodating court system they should pay for the time of court staff, clerical support and a fee to reflect the delays in hearings that locals will endure.

  • P O’Neil


    Minor poinr – no such thing as ‘British Law'(differnt from ‘British Justice), only English Law (covers England, Wales and NI) and Scots Law. The main differnce between English and Scots Laws, is that Scots Law actually works.

  • St John Smythe


    The points you make in the above post are facile and patronising. This is not a sixth-form debate. Depth!

  • Resolve

    FAO St John Smythe

    Point taken, St. John. I took far too long to make a simple point. In case it didn’t come through, all i meant was that it is not necessarily archaic to limit freedom of speech, just a cultural preference here. We still enjoy quite extensive freedoms of expression. Sorry if you felt ‘patronised’. I guess i am not a saint like you!

    FAO P O’Neill…

    I am quite aware of the difference between English law and Scots law, Scots law being almost a hybrid of civil and common law.. can’t comment on its effectiveness though. I;ll take your word for it.