Belfast Telegraph

Survey says majority wants it made harder to sue for defamation

BY NOEL MCADAM

More than 90% of people who took part in consultations on new libel laws for Northern Ireland want a higher threshold to be established before defamation cases can be brought, it can now be revealed.

The consultations over a Private Member's Bill introduced by Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt also show a higher level of interest on the issue here than in Britain.

The original consultation by the Ministry of Justice in the UK received 129 responses to the draft Bill and 75 responses to a questionnaire.

The UUP yesterday said it had received 209 responses to an online questionnaire and several dozen individually-tailored submissions.

The results show:

* 96% want a higher threshold – those claiming they have been defamed must prove serious harm or that they are likely to suffer financial loss.

* 96% believe Northern Ireland's defamation laws should include a defence of publication on matters of public interest.

* 99% believe it is important to give academics and scientists greater protection for offering honest opinion in their areas of expertise – and making it easier for professionals to take on well-funded and resourced organisations, such as multi-national drug companies.

Around 97% believe the 2013 Defamation Act will protect Northern Ireland from the threat of so-called libel tourism, and more than 90% believe that the law should offer more clarity on the responsibility of website operators for comments posted on their sites. Mr Nesbitt said the area where there was least clarity was in relation to trial by jury for cases of defamation – although a total of 77% supported a change in the law to allow defamation cases to be tried without a jury unless otherwise ordered by a court.

The UUP chief said: "This is the matter I thought might provoke most debate, and it did, as non-jury trials have a particular resonance in the recent history of Northern Ireland."

Mr Nesbitt has delayed his Bill after Finance Minister Simon Hamilton asked the Law Commission to examine whether the UK law should be extended here.

A spokesman for Mr Hamilton's department subsequently said: "As with any other Law Commission Report, the recommendations will have to be thoroughly assessed with a view to making final policy recommendations."

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