Monday, 10 February 2014

House of Lords moves into Northern Ireland libel law debate

Joanne Fleming reports in the Belfast Telegraph here:
"A CAMPAIGN to bring Northern Ireland's libel laws into line with the rest of the UK will take a step forward today as the House of Lords leaps into the debate over free speech. A proposal to extend the Defamation Act 2013 to Northern Ireland is to be made at a Bill committee meeting this afternoon, and if approved would force a response from the Government. 
Peers want to bring the act into law here by simply adding the words "and Northern Ireland" into a section of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill which refers to the Defamation Act being in force in England and Wales. The shrewd move could mean Westminster becoming embroiled in what is a devolved issue. 
Recent changes to laws in England and Wales have been designed to stop the UK becoming a hotspot for "libel tourists". They removed the presumption in favour of a trial by jury in defamation cases. The move – which involves Lord Black of Brentwood, Lord Lexden and Queen's University academic Lord Bew – follows a show of public support here for the Defamation Act being extended to Northern Ireland.
This of course refers to the "overwhelming support" given by the public to Mike Nesbitt's libel reform bill, see here and here. Four of the five parties support libel reform, that being the SDLP, UUP, Alliance and Sinn Fein, see here. The News Letter support libel reform, see here. The Belfast Telegraph supports libel reform, see here. The Belfast Telegraph also opposes the proposed Royal Charter that follows the Leveson Inquiry, see here. Mike Harris from Index on Censorship has spoken here of the urgency to reform libel laws in Northern Ireland. Index on Censorship had earlier made representations before a Stormont Committee here. Their letter here.

In November 2013 Peter Robinson explained that he supported the veto of the Defamation Act 2013 and said that fears about free speech are "absurd". In an article here, media lawyer Paul Tweed defends the decision to veto the libel reform. Back to Joanne Fleming:
"While there will not be a vote at today's [February 3 2014] Bill committee meeting, it will lay the ground for an important vote at the "report" stage of the legislative process in a couple of weeks' time. If approved by the House of Lords, the Bill will go back to Parliament for a response. 
Speaking last night, Lord Black, executive director of the Telegraph Media Group, said:
"The Defamation Act was the culmination of years of cross-party work. We know from the work of Mike Nesbitt that the people of Northern Ireland want the same protection of free speech. We hope that our amendment will help bring about change, building on the recent consultation, which will benefit academics, scientists, journalists and all users of social media. And crucially it will ensure the creative economy will flourish in Northern Ireland"."
Belfast Telegraph article in full here. Mick Hume supports libel reform but is critical of the intervention by the House of Lords, see here.

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