Monday, 24 February 2014

Peers will continue with their plan to extend Defamation Act to NI by adding it into Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill

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(Updated below)

Lord Lexden brought forward an amendment to the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill in committee. That amendment would effectuate reform of the libel law.

On Tuesday 25 February of this week the House of Lords will again look at libel reform in Northern Ireland. Frances Gibb, legal editor for the Times, reported that a line-up of peers will seek to amend the law to bring Northern Ireland into line with the UK, amid fears it will become the libel capital of the UK. They will continue with their plan to extend the Defamation Act to NI by adding it into Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.

Our earlier posts on the move by peers to enter the Northern Ireland libel reform movement here and here. The BBC Democracy Live previously reported on December 3 2013:
"Peers have broadly welcomed the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill at second reading and suggested ways it could be developed as it passes through Parliament. Introducing the bill on 3 December 2013, Northern Ireland Office spokesperson Baroness Randerson told the House: "It is a bill for more normal times."
On February 3 2014:
"Peers concluded committee-stage scrutiny of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill on 3 February 2014. Several probing amendments were put forward by peers, including a cross-party amendment concerning the implementation of defamation laws. 
He asserted that the Act was a "liberalising, modernising law, which will confer lasting benefits throughout society", and said it was "wholly unjustifiable that the people of Northern Ireland should be excluded from the benefits and protections" of the law. A "dual system" of defamation law would create "doubt and confusion" in an area where clarity was essential, he said.
  • Crossbencher and politics professor Lord Bew warned about the impact on academic freedom of having "antediluvian" libel laws - putting the Northern Ireland judiciary in an "almost intolerable" position.  
  • Conservative Lord Black of Brentwood, executive director of the Telegraph Media Group, was also critical: "There's certainly no doubt in my mind that this quixotic decision will cost jobs, put off the vital investment that is needed to create a sustainable economy... and expose ordinary people in Northern Ireland to the intense dangers of costly legal actions that can destroy lives."  
  • Government spokeswoman Baroness Randerson sympathised with the peers' frustration but said it was essential that they respected the devolution process. The minister added: "I am not suggesting that I regard it as a good thing that Northern Ireland hasn't updated its defamation law. I do not regard it as a good thing at all that Northern Ireland is in this position. But it is important that we respect devolution." 
The bill will make changes to various aspects of the devolution settlement and introduce measures to increase the transparency in party donations in Northern Ireland. It will also end the practice of "double jobbing" by members of the Northern Ireland Assembly also sitting as MPs.
The bill, which has already completed its passage through the House of Commons, will return to the Lords for report-stage scrutiny."

Lord Lexden is bringing up libel reform in the Lords again on Tuesday 25 February during the penultimate stage - known as the report stage - of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. The debate is expected to start between 4 and 5pm. Some of the leading lawyers in the House will be taking part. The Times is likely to publish a leading article on it.

The report stage of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill was originally tabled to make some adjustments to the devolved system in Northern Ireland on such issues as registering voters and declaring donations to political parties. Lord Lexden brought forward the amendment that would affectuate libel reform in the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.

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