Australia's punishing defamation laws have made Sydney the libel capital of the world, and people posting on Facebook and in blogs are the latest target for expensive legal action and threats. But the number of matters reaching court are a small proportion of total writs served, with most cases settled in advance to avoid the cost of a trial. Sydney's role as "defamation capital" is "a matter of public record," said NSW Judge Judith Gibson, who compiles the details of all defamation cases in Australia for legal publication LexisNexis. The Australian defamation law was passed in 2005, and to the end of last year, there were 72 trials in NSW compared to 21 in Queensland and 19 in Victoria, she wrote in Defamation Case Law Analysis and Statistics. London was traditionally considered the libel capital of the world, with its strict defamation laws, but the number of actions there has fallen quickly in recent years. Legislation introduced in 2013 has made it more difficult to sue and has limited damages. "A more plausible candidate for the international title might be Sydney," wrote British libel expert Hugh Tomlinson. "Although the population of NSW is just over seven million it appears to have similar numbers of libel cases to the whole of England and Wales with nearly eight times the population." Judge Gibson wrote that a growing problem was that "claims based on publications on the internet, emails and on social media, are now far more common than claims against traditional media defendants". That means ordinary people increasingly find themselves defending defamation actions in court, often representing themselves in a complex and expensive area of law. In NSW, there is no limit on how much money the court can order in costs to the winner of a defamation complaint. Defending a court action for defamation cost between about $100,000 and $1.1 million, which far exceeds the legislated maximum damages of $381,000, the figures show. Damages can also be substantial. A WA court last year awarded the largest ever Australian payout in a defamation case brought by three people against a blogger (described as a troll), Terence McLernon, of $700,000. Australia's Uniform Defamation Act was last amended in 2005, and does not differentiate between publishing by a media company or an individual, and makes no mention of internet, print or social media publication. In fact, under the law it is unclear who the publisher is of a post on social media. The law says there is a time limit of 12 months for someone to take legal action for defamation, but the High Court has ruled that each new download from the internet can be considered a fresh publication. This it means there is effectively no time limit on suing over something published online. Defamation lawyer Matt Collins, QC, said Australia's laws were now "a Frankenstein's monster" of rules and exclusions, and prevented good journalism from investigative reporters. "There are important, high-profile stories that don't get told because of the chilling effect of defamation law, and the high cost of actions". Dr Collins said the law needed urgent change Fairfax Media lawyer Richard Coleman said only about 10 to 15 per cent of defamation claims made against the media organisation, publisher of The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, ever made it to court. Many are settled for undisclosed sums because taking cases to court is so expensive. Richard Ackland of the Gazette of Law and Journalism, described it as "a racket". "You start sending nasty letters and pleadings to newspaper lawyers and they respond 'how much is this going to cost'?" However, the issue of defamation law is not on the political agenda, and even Australian politicians who have cited free speech when arguing for amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act have used the defamation law to sue or threaten people who criticise them.