Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Northern Ireland Law Commission recommends libel law review

In the period between May and June 2012 Sammy Wilson, then Finance Minister, vetoed the Defamation Act 2013 without consulting any of the other parties, deciding not to pass a 'legislative consent motion'. He said that threats to free speech were "just a load of nonsense."

In May 2013 Mike Nesbitt introduced fresh libel legislation (our post here).

In September 2013 the newly installed Finance Minister Simon Hamilton asked the Northern Ireland Law Commission to cast "a fresh pair of eyes" over the Defamation Act 2013 (our post here)

In November 2013 the First Minister Peter Robinson said he supported the original veto and said that fears were "absurd".

Following the September referral to the Law Commission the News Letter has reported here that the Law Commission has recommended a public consultation on Northern Ireland’s libel laws. The Law Commission has given the advice to Simon Hamilton after he asked it to look into the issue (we looked at that move here and Tony Jaffa welcomed the development here).

The commission’s chief executive Judena Goldring has made the advice to DUP Finance Minister Simon Hamilton after he asked the agency to look into the matter. The Law Commission must now await formal clearance from the Justice Minister before it begins work on the project in the new year and submits a report to Executive ministers.

In February 2013 the former DUP Finance Minister Sammy Wilson made the unannounced decision to block Northern Ireland from the sweeping reforms of the British libel laws which have liberated and strengthened the protections on free speech for journalists, academics, internet users and others. The unilateral move has been opposed by some leading libel lawyers who claim that it will make it too difficult for ordinary people to sue publishers. Ms Judena Goldring told the News Letter:
"Our initial advice to the finance minister is that there ought to be a full public consultation on the issues here so that the people of Northern Ireland have a good opportunity to contribute to that discussion... Once formal approval is forthcoming we will expect to have a full public consultation on the issues here so that the people of Northern Ireland will have a good opportunity to contribute to that discussion and we can have a proper public debate on the issues."
Ms Goldring stressed that the commission wanted to see a balanced debate, not a “skewed” one.
“We will do the research and arguments on all sides and put that, in an unbiased way, into the public domain in the form of a consultation paper.”

She said that the commission was “fortunate” that there had already been a major consultation on the issue in England and Wales and the defamation law in Northern Ireland is “very similar” so the commission had “the benefit of all the responses back to that”.

Ms Goldring said that the commission would then put its recommendations to the Finance Minister. Ms Judena Goldring praised Mike Nesbitt, who has introduced fresh legislation here, for his handling of the issue, saying that he had been "very responsible and helpful" with the commission. She said: "He has done a lot of work in bringing this issue to the fore and taking the very responsible position that he has adopted in letting official consultation brought forward by the Law Commission to take it on."

News Letter report in full here.

For earlier post on the matter of libel reform in Northern Ireland, Tony Jaffa supports Law Commission investigation here, the News Letter said it supported libel reform here, Peter Robinson said that he saw no point in libel reform here and media lawyer Paul Tweed supported the Sammy Wilson veto here. The Stormont Committee found the libel reform was unnecessary here. Paul Connolly in the Belfast Telegraph and Lord Black backed reform here, 31 writers and poets called for libel reform here. Mike Nesbitt introduced new legislation here and explained why Northern Ireland needs libel reform here. His draft bill is here. David Pannick QC said here that an "unpleasant odour" was coming from Northern Ireland's libel laws. A doctor said here that the current libel laws in Northern Ireland had contributed to patient deaths. Mike Harris from Index on Censorship made representations before Stormont Committee on the need for libel reform in Northern Ireland, see here. Index's letter to the Stormont Committee can be read here. Jo Glanville of English Pen slammed the Stormont libel veto here. Lord Bew said here that the NI libel laws were bad for academics and journalists. Lord Black said here that the libel veto puts jobs and investment at risk. The Ulster Business Magazine asked NI media lawyers Paul Tweed and Olivia O'Kane if people should be worried by Northern Ireland's libel isolationism here. A May 2013 analysis of the events surrounded libel reform in NI here. Sam McBride tweeted about the possible consequences of the libel veto here. As did Newton Emerson here.

Mike Nesbitt wrote in the Belfast Telegraph on July 23 here:
"In all my years in broadcast journalism, I was involved in very few cases of defamation, but, of those that did emerge, all involved the political classes. Indeed, they all involved the DUP: two were brought by elected representatives; the third by those offended by comments made by one of their senior members.
So, should politicians declare an interest when commentating on the laws of defamation? They should certainly bear it in mind."

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