Belfast Telegraph

Hopes of reforming our libel laws dealt blow by Stormont

By Adrian Rutherford

A campaign to reform Northern Ireland's archaic libel laws has hit another hurdle after it emerged a consultation has been delayed.

The Department of Justice has blocked publication of a paper commissioned by Finance Minister Simon Hamilton on the matter.

The development emerged in a letter from the Northern Ireland Law Commission (NILC). It had been tasked with developing a paper on libel reform after attempts to reform our decades-old legislation were blocked by Stormont.

However, cutbacks mean the commission will close next April, and it has been instructed not to issue the consultation paper.

The Defamation Act - the first major reform to the UK's libel legislation for 170 years - came into force last year but will not apply to Northern Ireland. Last September Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt introduced a Private Member's Bill on the matter. But the process was halted after Mr Hamilton referred the matter to the Law Commission.

The commission was to advise the minister on whether a new law is needed. However, a letter from its chief executive, Ken Millar, stated the process has been halted.

He writes: "NILC have completed their research on the topic, which focuses on the 2013 Act and whether any corresponding provision should be introduced in Northern Ireland.

"A consultation paper on the subject is in fact in a final form ready to be published, with the intention of having a final report published by June 2015. However, the Minister for Justice in Northern Ireland announced at the end of September that, because of financial pressures, NILC should cease to operate from April 1 2015, and in that context DOJ have instructed NILC not to issue the consultation paper at this stage."

The letter says the Departments of Justice and Finance are discussing the best options for the future handling of the review.

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The Defamation Act 2013 was brought in to reform the UK's libel laws - among the most Draconian in the world. It sets out to ensure that a fair balance is struck between the right to freedom of expression and the protection of reputation. Its supporters claim the legislation reverses the chilling effect previous libel laws had on freedom of expression.

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