The basis of defamation in English law is to protect a person's reputation from untrue and damaging statements – one which injures the reputation of another person: that is if it "tends to lower him or her in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally".
There are two basic types of defamation – libel and slander. A defamatory statement constitutes a libel if it is published: (publication, for these purposes, is simply the communication of the defamatory matter to a third person) and it is in writing, print or some other permanent form. Slander is a statement if it is published and it is made orally or in some other non-permanent form.
The main practical difference between claims for libel and claims for slander is what a claimant has to prove to succeed in his or her claim. For libel claims the claimant does not have to prove that he or she has suffered loss or damage as a result of the publication. However, in a claim for slander, the claimant must prove actual damage although damage can be presumed and need not be proved in certain cases – for example, if the spoken words accuse the claimant of committing a crime; of being unfit for his or her office, business or profession, or of having a contagious disease.
Unlike in most civil actions where the claimant must prove his or her case, in defamation it is for the alleged defamer to prove that the statements he or she has made are true or to provide another defence. This can be a "free speech" public interest defence under the Human Rights Act, "fair comment" or even by showing that the complainant does not have a good reputation to defend in the first place. Defendants can also claim absolute or qualified privilege if the allegations are made as part of legal proceedings or the reporting of legal proceedings.
It is an exceedingly risky exercise for claimants and often only has the effect of giving much greater prominence to the original libel. Legal aid is not available for defamation cases.
The growth of the internet has meant that libellous statements are now published all over the world, meaning in theory that those claiming defamation can choose whichever legal jurisdiction will look on their claim most sympathetically or award the greatest damages. This has led to the growth of 'libel tourism', especially by US citizens taking action in the English courts.
Although many European countries, including France, have specific laws protecting the privacy on individuals, no such law exists in the UK. However, since the introduction of the Human Rights Act (see Ministry of Justice website), a number of well-known individuals have successfully brought legal actions to protect their privacy by claiming that intrusions contravene their 'right to a family life' under the Act. As this is a relatively new concept in the UK, bringing these claims is, like defamation, a risky business and good legal advice is essential.