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Minister hints that libel reform will create privacy law

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A justice minister has said that there is "consensus" that a privacy law is needed, though he stopped short of committing the government to introducing one. A fellow senior Liberal Democrat said Parliament needed to "get hold" of privacy law.

There is no overarching privacy law in the UK, but celebrities and athletes have increasingly used a provision of the European Convention on Human Rights in recent years to stop newspapers from publishing material about their private lives.

The Convention, which was implemented in UK law as the Human Rights Act, guarantees the right to a private and family life. Celebrities including JK Rowling, Naomi Campbell, John Terry and Max Moseley have used that clause to attempt to stop newspapers publishing stories or photographs about them or their families.

Lord McNally, a Liberal Democrat peer and minister in the Ministry of Justice with responsibility for human rights and civil liberties, told the Daily Telegraph that the government's planned libel reform bill may also cover privacy and could be law by 2012.

"There has been a general consensus that a new piece of legislation that clarifies, consolidates and removes some of the more dangerous aspects of the way case law has grown up is something that is desirable," he said.

Journalists and editors have been critical of the way in which the Human Rights Act has been used. Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre said that a privacy law has effectively been created by one judge.

"I am referring, of course, to Justice David Eady who has, again and again, under the privacy clause of the Human Rights Act, found against newspapers and their age-old freedom to expose the moral shortcomings of those in high places," said Dacre in a speech in 2008. "This law is not coming from Parliament – no, that would smack of democracy – but from the arrogant and amoral judgements – words I use very deliberately – of one man."

Lord McNally echoed some of those concerns.

"There was a danger that we were getting towards having privacy law by judicial decision. If we are going to have a privacy law it should be openly debated and freely decided by Parliament," McNally told the Telegraph.

Lord McNally also told the paper that the use of 'super injunctions', whose very existence has to remain secret along with the information they seek to protect, would be "dealt with".

"[They are] something that has grown up by stealth, rather than by considered desire of Parliament and therefore they will be in the sights when they look at the reform of the law," he said.

Sir Alan Beith, an MP and fellow senior Liberal Democrat, told the Telegraph that he backed the extension of the defamation bill to cover privacy.

"As long as Parliament does nothing about it, the courts have to develop the law and respond to the situation. Parliament needs to get to grips with the issue," he said. "It won’t be possible to reform the law of defamation without ensuring there is some protection for privacy. You can’t wholly separate them."

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