Defamation laws get 'cyber age' reboot

Tim Dornin
Attorney-General Christian Porter and the states and territories will update their defamation laws

Australia should have significantly modernised defamation laws in place by June next year, bringing the regulations into the "cyber age" after a rare agreement by the nation's chief legal officers.

Federal and state attorneys-general met in Adelaide on Friday, signing off on a set of draft laws to better protect responsible public-interest journalism and reduce frivolous litigation.

"Defamation law in Australia has had a massive reboot," NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman said.

"I've said a number of times that our defamation laws are no longer fit for purpose, they haven't been looked at for about 14 years.

"But today, we have fixed that problem."

The new provisions include a new single publication rule to ensure the limitation period for bringing action begins when material is uploaded to a website rather each time it is downloaded.

They also include a serious harm threshold, similar to laws in the UK and a public interest defence for public-interest journalist, relying on New Zealand laws.

"These reforms will unclog our courts of neighbourhood tiffs, they will put downward pressure on damages for hurt feelings and they will protect responsible, public-interest journalism," Mr Speakman said.

Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter said it was impossible to underestimate the importance of the proposed reforms.

"These very significant reforms to the way in which defamation law should work in Australia have the agreement from both sides of politics, from the commonwealth and every single state and territory as the logical starting point," he said.

"That is a very, very rare thing."

Mr Porter said the only aspect still to be finalised was how to deal with the uploading of material to social media and other digital platforms by individuals.

"The issue of digital platforms is the one that will be moved to a second round of consultation and reform," he said.

"That is because there are obvious complexities around that, but that reform again isn't going away."

Mr Speakman said the government would invite public comment on the draft proposals by January 24 with all jurisdictions expected to introduce the measures by June, 2020.