Belfast Telegraph

Stormont wants to kick libel law reform down the road, MLAs told

By Victoria O'Hara

Fears have been expressed that a bid to reform libel laws in Northern Ireland is being "kicked down the road politically".

It comes as Stormont's Finance Committee agreed to write to the Northern Ireland Law Commission requesting a "clear timeframe" over how long it will take to consult on a Private Members' Bill proposing changing libel laws.

The move was agreed after the UUP's Mike Nesbitt  said he believed it could take until next summer for the commission to examine the issue.

Mr Nesbitt tabled the Bill to bring Northern Ireland in line with England and Wales regarding new defamation laws.

The Defamation Act 2013 was adopted by England and Wales in January.

The government said the law would reverse the "chilling effect" current libel laws have had on freedom of expression and legitimate debate.

Former Finance Minister Sammy Wilson decided not to introduce it in Northern Ireland.

Simon Hamilton, who replaced Mr Wilson as Finance Minister, then referred the matter to the Northern Ireland Law Commission.

Giving evidence to the Finance Committee yesterday, Mr Nesbitt, who had carried out a public online consultation on the issue, said he feared the process could face delays.

"My intention was to move on from that public consultation to a round of consultations with chief stakeholders," he said.

He said following Mr Hamilton's referral to the Law Commission he was happy to "stand back" and let it lead further consultations. But he said his one concern is the timeframe.

"At my first meeting with them I left with the impression that it may be done before summer recess," he said. "After my second meeting I fear it might be summer recess next year.

"It is not a criticism of the Law Commission, they will do it thoroughly and properly, but I am concerned it is being kicked down the road politically."

Warnings have been given that if the law is not extended to Northern Ireland, Belfast could become the "new libel capital of the world".

Concerns about this have been raised by Irish authors including Roddy Doyle, Father Ted writer Graham Linehan and former Beirut hostage-turned-writer Brian Keenan.

Also giving evidence was editor of the Belfast Telegraph Mike Gilson who briefed the committee on the impact the Defamation Act 2013 could have if it was implemented.

He described the Defamation Act as "a common sense way of knocking out vexatious claims and still protecting someone who suffered serious damage".

The DUP's Peter Weir challenged the notion that not introducing the Defamation Act could lead to "libel tourism".

"Has there been any evidence of an increased caseload that would indicate libel tourism?" he asked.

Mr Gilson said: "I'd have to say no, but in the life-cycle of a law it may be something we have to look at in the future."

He said the cost in time and money of the culture has a "chilling effect on journalism".

"We are quicker to take legal action here, we are quicker to threaten with lawyers, to hand out higher levels of damages when it comes to defamation than anywhere else in the UK in my experience."

Mr Gilson said the current legal system is a "clunky process – drawn out and it is costly". "The Defamation Act of 2013 laid out as never before clear law on what constitutes defamation," he said. "This is about supporting a law that goes some way to underpinning something that is vital in our society, that is freedom of expression."

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