Belfast Telegraph

Minister's move could signal libel law U-turn

BY LIAM CLARKE

The vexed issue of libel reform will be reopened after the recently appointed Finance Minister, Simon Hamilton, confirmed that he had commissioned an official report on the new Westminster legislation and whether it should be extended here.

"I want to bring a fresh pair of eyes to this issue," he said.

He confirmed that he had asked for an official and independent review which he hoped would take "months rather than years".

Later this year, Northern Ireland will fall out of line with the rest of the UK after a new Westminster Defamation Bill comes into force. It updates the UK's archaic 19th century libel laws to take account of the internet and protect journals.

There had been fears that failing to adopt the changes could result in Belfast becoming a "libel tourism" venue where foreigners would come to sue papers in their own countries.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt is introducing a Private Member's Bill in a bid to extend the UK legislation to here.

Westminster was spurred on to legislate after US courts refused to enforce UK libel awards on free speech grounds. The new Bill requires litigants to show that they have suffered "serious harm" before going to court. It also allows defences of honest opinion and public interest provided any necessary corrections are printed.

The Belfast Telegraph has now seen a letter from Mr Hamilton to Judena Goldring, the chief executive of the Northern Ireland Law Commission, asking her to look into the anomaly.

He asks the commission, an official body for reviewing legislation, to "assess the act, which is expected to be commenced later this year, and to advise me on whether any corresponding provisions should be introduced here".

BACKGROUND

The Defamation Bill 2013, a reform of libel and free speech law, comes into force this year but will not be extended to Northern Ireland because the Executive missed a Westminster legislative deadline. The Bill is aimed at discouraging "libel tourism". Public consultation on UUP leader Mike Nesbitt's bill will be officially launched on Thursday.

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