'Libel tourism' warning for Northern Ireland
One of the UK's top legal figures has criticised Stormont for excluding Northern Ireland from sweeping reforms aimed at strengthening freedom of speech.
The Defamation Bill would drag Britain's 170-year-old libel laws into the 21st century and has been backed by a series of leading writers and lawyers.
But the Executive has refused permission for the reforms to be extended here – effectively putting Northern Ireland on a different legal footing to the rest of the UK.
Britain's libel laws are seen as among the most punitive in the world, leading to so-called libel tourism. In recent years, foreigners have used British courts to sue foreign publications under the UK's stricter regime.
A high-profile example concerned recently deceased Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky, who used UK courts to sue American magazine Forbes over an article entitled 'Godfather of the Kremlin?', which included the sub-head 'Power. Politics. Murder. Boris Berezovsky could teach the guys in Sicily a thing or two'.
The Bill's architect, Liberal Democrat peer Lord Lester, warned Stormont's failure to extend the reforms to Northern Ireland could mean Belfast becomes the UK's new libel capital.
"It is a very bad step for the public because it means that the Press, including broadcasters who are the eyes and ears of the public, will have to grapple with an out-of-date legal system in Northern Ireland compared to one which has been carefully brought up to date and strikes a fair balance in England and Wales," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
"Of course, it is a very good step for lawyers in Northern Ireland who want to make a fortune out of an archaic libel law... Those lawyers will profit, but it will be at the expense of free speech for the people of Northern Ireland."
Media law expert Tony Jaffa said the "chilling effect" of libel law on freedom of expression will be as acute as ever.
The SDLP, who support the reforms, claimed the decision was taken by the Office of First and Deputy First Minister rather than the Executive en masse.
OFMDFM did not respond to requests for comment last night.
The Defamation Bill aims to:
• Give added protection to websites for libels published on their sites by third parties;
• Enable scientific and academic reviews to be published without fear of libel;
• Afford fair and accurate summaries of official Press conferences the protection of privilege; and
• Encourage debate and the free exchange of ideas by protecting material published in the public interest.