Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 25 November 2014

House of Lords move on libel law for Northern Ireland

Peers' bid piles on the pressure for crucial changes 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.

While there will not be a vote at today's 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."

UUP leader Mr Nesbitt said the amendment was "a way of keeping awareness of the issue even if it is not actually going to succeed".

North Down MLA Peter Weir said: "Defamation Law is entirely a devolved matter. It is possible for Westminster to legislate for Northern Ireland with the consent of the Assembly, but this is generally done to have a common position across the UK."

BACKGROUND

In July last year the then DUP Finance Minister Sammy Wilson said Stormont should take a wait and see approach on the Bill.

In November, however, his successor Simon Hamilton referred the matter to the Law Society for consideration, leading to speculation that he may be prepared to take a different approach.

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