JUSTICE, the saying goes, is like the Ritz Hotel.

In principle, both are open to the rich and poor alike – but you don’t find many ordinary punters lodging in the Coco Chanel Suite, and there aren’t many men and women of slender means settling scores in London’s libel courts.

Defamation cases are – almost always – the definition of boutique litigation. Sometimes petty and personal, sometimes brought against critics as an act of pure muscle, always ruinously expensive for ­everyone involved. Vardy v Rooney joins the long and ignoble line of cases where uncontrollably rich people decide to ­settle their scores in public, further damaging their reputations in the process, to the ­considerable diversion of the tabloid media.

Volunteering to be an object of schadenfreude might strike you as a curious life choice, but Rebekah Vardy isn’t the first – or last – litigant to bring a libel suit who will be left wondering if the game was ­really worth the candle, as she contemplates ­settling not only her own QC’s fees, but the massive barristers’ bill Coleen Rooney will have accumulated defending herself. And what public interest was really served?

I don’t begrudge m’learned friends their living, but it says something about our ­society that spending over a million quid on a media circus seems like a gainful use of our resources, time and energies. Scotland has encountered its fair share of misconceived and backfiring defamation actions over the years. We’ve seen Andy Wightman entangled in a suit with Wildcat Haven for £750,000. Stuart Campbell spent ­hundreds of thousands of pounds suing ­Kezia ­Dugdale for £25,000.

It isn’t just public figures who’re getting in on the game. In 2012, a Fife painter and decorator called George Cowan sued stationary-supplier-cum-stand-up ­comedian Mark Bennett for making jokes in public about his sexuality. Described as ­a “gregarious and outspoken” man who liked ­“banter” – Bennett didn’t expect his misplaced wisecracks about the “more reserved” Cowan’s sexuality at the local chamber of commerce would lead to a full-blown Sheriff Court trial and a damages claim of £10,000.

The sheriff concluded that it isn’t defamatory to say someone is gay, even if they’re straight. But if a court case becomes a proxy for wounded feelings, then there’s nothing which can hold the obsessive ­litigant back. There are few more alarming phrases in civil practice than “I want my day in court”.

One of the best examples of this comes from the ranks of Scottish press itself. The now deceased political editor of The Times in Scotland, Angus Macleod, was responsible for possibly the crankiest ­defamation cases of all time to be heard in Parliament Hall. Macleod was the ­subject of a satirical column by Alan ­Taylor in the Sunday Herald diary, ­relating the ­contenders for that year’s coveted ­“Tartan ­Bollocks Award” – which Taylor explained “is given to the Holyrood hack who has made the biggest gaffe of the year”.

Taylor wrote that MacLeod “who, like Alexander Graham Bell, is justly ­renowned for his powers of invention”, came close to winning that year’s prize “with his confident prediction that Jim Wallace would still be leading the ­LibDems in 2007. Mr Wallace repaid the faith shown in him by promptly announcing his retirement”.

Macleod seems to have taken this screed astonishingly personally, instructing his solicitors to try to squeeze £50,000 out of the Sunday Herald for traducing his reputation as a diligent reporter. Between the diary column’s gags, Macleod argued, the reasonable reader would assume that he was a fabulist who routinely invented his stories. Given the context, this was a real flex – and the judge chucked the case out, finding that no defamation had been ­established. Essentially: the ordinary reader would be in on the joke.

If you were sympathetic to Macleod’s situation, you might describe his dogged pursuit of vindication as “single-minded”. But I’m less generously inclined. This is just this kind of case which gives defamation law a bad name, and justly so. The case has another claim to fame. To my knowledge, it’s also the first and only ­occasion the phrase “Tartan Bollocks” has made its way into a Court of Session judgment. Which is a mercy, when you come think of it.

Don’t get me wrong. From time to time, a slapdash newspaper or drunken tweeter will publish a lie of such astonishing egregiousness that I don’t blame the ­victim for setting the lawyers on them. But more ­often than not, waving legal letters at your critics and pushing shaky ­defamation ­cases to a full hearing is an act of wounded narcissism, leveraging social and economic capital to visit hardship and stress on personal enemies or political opponents.

The law doesn’t permit you to ­harass your critics unless you’ve hired a ­compliant stable of lawyers to do your threats and menaces for you. This is just a ­mannered form of thuggery, and at worst, ­essentially recreational litigation – the main joy of which is the cost and ­suffering you put the other side through.

It isn’t just the cost. It is also the ­emotional and psychological cost of ­finding yourself embroiled in an often long-running, tortious process which has the potential to invade and empty not only your bank account – but your life too. It’s a menace.

This week, the Defamation and ­Malicious Publication (Scotland) Act 2021 will finally come into force, almost a year and a half after it was passed by Holyrood. Having been working on ­defamation reform for over half a decade now, it is a personal relief that the reform will finally be realised.

Curiously, the significance of the new Act has been largely ignored by the ­Scottish media, notwithstanding the substantial benefits it will extend to our work. But the reform isn’t just a fillip for the press. The new Act does a range of ­important things.

Take a few examples. First, the Act ­introduces a new “serious harm” test. For a statement to be actionable, the pursuer will have to demonstrate that it has had a substantial adverse impact on their reputation. In the case of businesses trading for profits – this means serious financial harm. This new threshold is intended to make it easier to write off frivolous suits.

Then there’s the new rules on ­secondary publishers. If I defamed ­someone in this column and you shared it on Twitter or Facebook, it wouldn’t just be me, my ­editor and the paper which could find itself on the hook for damages. You too could find yourself facing demands for damages for spreading the slander. Under the new law, litigants will need to go after the original author, editor or publisher of the piece rather than folk who innocently share it online. Which I’m sure is a weight off all your minds.

One of the other tweaks seems technical – and is anything but. Under the law as it stands, pursuers have three years just to begin legal proceedings against people who defame them. What does this mean in practice? Well, think of it this way. Say I defame someone in today’s column. Say they respond with an outraged lawyer’s letter tomorrow, threatening to take the Sunday National to law for my outrageous slur. They could leave us hanging for 36 months, the threat of potential court action up in the air.

What kind of effect do you think this might have on free and fearless journalism? Might you not decide to swear off columns about the person you criticised, spiking potential stories to avoid provoking them into a court case? The chilling effect is insidious and invisible. But if you are cynical, unscrupulous, and formidably lawyered up – then chances are you’re quite happy to leave these hazards hanging over your critics. From August, this period will be foreshortened to 12 months, giving publishers much greater security.

There are also new, clearer defences. Truth – veritas – has always been a ­defence to defamation if you can prove what you said is “substantially true”. The same goes for honest statements of ­opinion. But from August, publishers will also benefit from the safe harbour of a “public interest” defence, where they shared ­information which they ­reasonably believed was in the public interest to report.

Taken together, these changes are the most radical to be visited on Scots law in this area for decades. And not ­before time.