Belfast Telegraph

The Defamation Bill - what will it mean

THE Defamation Bill 2012-13 was passed in London and is now awaiting Royal Assent. It provides important protections for Press freedom to balance the new restrictions imposed by the Leveson Inquiry.

However, it will not be extended here, the deadline for Stormont to agree to that has been missed.

Now the Assembly must either introduce its own law or stick with the existing libel laws, framed in Victorian times before the age of the computer.

A leading Belfast libel lawyer, who believes that the law should be updated here, also agrees that one net effect of not reforming the law will be to encourage people to sue here.

Paul McDonnell of McKinty and Wright said: "Whilst I don't doubt that the isolation of Northern Ireland in libel law is likely to generate more work for my colleagues and I, can it really be said that such a situation is serving the interests of justice and ultimately the citizens of Northern Ireland?"

He also argues that it would "do nothing for the standing of our legal system in the rest of the UK, and indeed further afield". The new free speech protections in Britain's Defamation Bill include:

* Libel cases will only be able to be taken in London if that is "clearly the most appropriate place".

* In Northern Ireland, wealthy Americans and other foreigners will be able to sue overseas papers whose websites can be viewed here or who sell even a few copies locally. This is known as libel tourism.

* Potential litigants have to show that their reputation has suffered "serious harm" before a case is accepted. This will protect the Press against high legal costs in cases with no chance of success.

* Less cases will go before juries, where costs are higher and less predictable. Northern Ireland is the only UK region to use juries in car insurance cases. As a result, local motor premiums are 12% higher than elsewhere. Similar costs may be passed on to newspapers operating here.

* "Truth", "honest comment" and "responsible publication" will be written into the new law as statutory defences against libel actions. Scientific and academic articles will have some protection against being sued for their findings, for instance if they suggest a medical product was a hoax.

* A publication or website cannot be sued more than 12 months after an article first appears. Websites and blogspots will no longer be open to being sued for postings by third parties provided they remove offensive posts if there is a complaint.

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