The Finance Minister took a unilateral decision to halt the extension of libel reform to Northern Ireland without consulting other parties on the issue, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
Lawyers are predicting that the move will attract foreign litigants, or libel tourists, to use our more restrictive laws. The move by Sammy Wilson (below) has been described as "outrageous" by Index on Censorship, a London-based Press freedom body.
Mike Harris of Index said: "It would be perverse if this vital legislation was kept out of Northern Ireland without even being debated in the Assembly."
UK-wide legislation like the Defamation Bill can be extended to here by a motion of 'Legislative Consent' passed at the Assembly. A minister, though, must submit proposals to the Executive.
The Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP), which is headed by Sammy Wilson, is responsible in this case. On May 22 last year Mr Wilson submitted a paper on the legislation to the Executive. Normally that would be passed to the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers (OFMDFM) where DUP and Sinn Fein backroom teams would table it for discussion.
In this case, however, Mr Wilson withdrew it before it was reached by the backroom teams. "It wasn't in the system very long... and someone somewhere prompted Sammy to withdraw it without consideration," an OFMDFM source said. It was withdrawn in mid-June 2012.
The DUP alone has expressed hostility to the reforms.
When the Bill was debated at Westminster last June, Ian Paisley jnr led the attack on it just days before Mr Wilson withdrew his paper here.
He objected to a clause specifying that people must show that they had suffered "substantial harm" to their reputation before suing. Mr Paisley disagreed and quoted a letter from his solicitor Paul Tweed which stated that "anything short of being called an axe-murderer probably falls short of the requirement".
Last night Mr Wilson was not available to comment. A spokeswoman for DFP said: "Defamation is a civil law matter and, accordingly, it falls within DFP's remit. There are no plans to review the law on defamation in Northern Ireland."
An OFMDFM spokeswoman said: "The Defamation Bill was never considered by the Executive".
Story so far
The Defamation Bill in Britain will extend free speech protections to balance new Press regulations introduced following the Leveson Inquiry. It is designed to stop "libel tourism", where rich foreigners travel to the UK to sue. The deadline for extending the reforms to Northern Ireland has now been missed without any debate in the Assembly or Executive.
MLAs want issue brought before Assembly
Efforts are being made to force the issue of libel reform onto the floor of the Assembly after Finance Sammy Wilson effectively killed off discussion by withdrawing a paper from the Executive.
Three leading free speech campaigns have written to the DFP committee urging it to "subject Mr Wilson's decision to full scrutiny" and offering to attend the committee to give evidence if necessary.
Last night parties indicated they would support the call for discussion of the Defamation Bill, now law in England.
TUV leader Jim Allister has tabled a question asking why Mr Wilson withdrew his paper.
The letter is addressed to Daithi McKay, the chair of the DFP Committee.
It is signed by Kirsty Hughes, chief executive, Index on Censorship; Tracey Brown, managing director, Sense About Science and Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, an association of poets, essayists and novelists.
They recall how UK libel laws brought the court system into disrepute internationally after a Ukrainian oligarch sued a local Ukrainian paper in London and a "disgraced Saudi businessman" sued a US academic over a book not even published in the UK.
"If Northern Ireland does not update its law of libel, libel tourists such as corrupt businessmen, powerful vested interests and global corporations may begin to use the High Court in Belfast to silence their critics," they write.
DUP MP Ian Paisley effectively conceded the point that foreigners will now be attracted to Northern Ireland to sue.
Paul Tweed, a leading libel lawyer, who advocates toughening the law, said: "We are being treated as second-class citizens over here and that is why so few cases are coming to court in Northern Ireland.
"It is all loaded against the man in the street."
Jim Allister, a barrister, said: "We will create a very difficult situation for ourselves if we don't adopt the bill here, but it will be good for the lawyers of course."