Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Libel lawyer Paul Tweed to tell MLAs why free speech reform is wrong

Paul Tweed from Johnsons Solicitors

The debate over libel law reform has moved up a notch after a high-profile defamation lawyer stepped in to argue against any changes or reform in the law.

Paul Tweed– the Belfast solicitor whose clients have included Hollywood stars and prominent politicians – confirmed that he had actively lobbied politicians on the issue.

On Tuesday Mr Tweed wrote to all party leaders, plus Finance Minister Sammy Wilson, who is responsible for Defamation law, urging them to resist pressure for reform.

The only changes in the law he favours would allow lawyers to take libel actions on a 'no win, no fee' basis and to permit the cost of certain types of libel insurance premiums to be added to libel settlements awarded against newspapers and publishers.

"After reading the Belfast Telegraph I am writing to the DFP committee asking to give evidence. If they are allowing these London people (freedom of speech advocates) to come in, local people need representation. This is about allowing the ordinary man in the street redress if their reputation has been damaged," he said.

He dismissed claims that freedom of comment was jeopardised by our libel laws, which date back to the Victorian era and are often called the most restrictive in the world.

In London all parties back changes intended to discourage frivolous claims and to put off "libel tourists" from travelling here to use our courts. In his letter to party leaders, Mr Tweed says "as a libel lawyer of 35 years standing, practising from offices in Belfast, London and Dublin, I have steadfastly opposed any changes in the defamation law in the UK, which have now come about as a result of pressure from the United States".

This is a reference to a campaign which led US courts to refuse to enforce UK libel settlements where they are out of line with American law.

Mr Tweed sent the politicians copies of his book Privacy And Libel Law: The Clash With Press Freedom. It examines the differences in libel in different countries and argues that the old UK system was fairest.

It has been argued that internet media companies will be put off locating here if laws are more restrictive than London.

In his letter Mr Tweed counters by saying that companies would "be encouraged to locate here in a jurisdiction where they ought to have the same legal rights to protect their brand and corporate reputation as in Dublin".

He particularly objects to a change in British law which says people must show "serious harm" to their reputation before suing.

It's intended to discourage frivolous claims, but Mr Tweed writes it "makes it more difficult for the electorate... to protect themselves".

The reforms have been championed by Lord Lester, a top London human rights lawyer. Mr Tweed said "when I talk about this I feel like Cassandra", a mythical prophetess who nobody believed but who was right in the end.

He added: "People say 'this is just a lawyer trying to line his own pockets', but I am quite happy to have my fees compared to Lord Lester's any day."

Despite low fees Mr Tweed has secured some the biggest libel settlements in Irish or UK history.

But he said: "I am a big supporter of print edition newspapers. I read more newspapers than anyone else I know. I am the last person on the planet to want to see them financially compromised to a degree where their future jeopardised."

Mr Tweed is a respected lawyer with many media and political clients.

While he opposes change, his intervention will make the debate harder for politicians to ignore.

Story so far

The Defamation Bill, a reform of libel and free speech law, won't be extended to Northern Ireland after the Executive missed a legislative deadline in Westminster. A paper from Sammy Wilson's Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) was never discussed and no explanation has been offered as to why. Now the DFP committee plans an oral hearing on the issue and UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, is tabling a private member's bill to change the law here

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