Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 12 July 2014

Stormont silent on why it blocked libel reform laws in Northern Ireland

Stormont
Stormont

Stormont's top department has been slammed for refusing to explain why legislation to strengthen freedom of speech won't be extended to Northern Ireland.

The Defamation Bill is due to come into force in England and Wales this year and will be the first reform of Britain's archaic libel laws for 170 years.

However, it will not impact on Northern Ireland after the Assembly blocked it becoming law here. Stormont's Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) – which has responsibility for libel law – said it "was unable to secure an Executive decision within the required timescale".

The SDLP said a decision had not been taken by the Executive, and hinted that the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) had intervened.

It is understood DFP asked OFMDFM for consent to proceed with the legislation last May.

An SDLP spokesman said: "It seems that somewhere between DFP and OFMDFM there was a decision not to proceed with the extension. That is for them to explain."

The Belfast Telegraph twice contacted OFMDFM for an explanation. However, there has been no response.

Last night TUV leader Jim Allister criticised the lack of response.

"It is typical of OFMDFM and it is part of the dysfunctionalism of the office where, if they cannot agree, there is an exercise of veto by one side or the other," he said.

"The only commonality is that they clam up to try and keep the lid on it, and that seems to be exactly what is happening here."

The Defamation Bill aims to reform libel laws to ensure a fair balance is struck between the right to freedom of expression and the protection of reputation.

Currently Britain's laws are seen as among the most punitive in the world, leading to so-called libel tourism. Mr Allister expressed concerns that Belfast could replace London as the so-called libel capital of the world.

Belfast lawyer Brian Garrett said the failure to extend the Defamation Bill to Northern Ireland could lead to a two-tiered libel system in the UK.

"When legislation happens in Britain, there seems to be no pattern to follow or have corresponding legislation, and that is a big deficit in devolution," he said.

"This could leave Northern Ireland out of step, not only with the rest of the UK, but also most democracies."

Factfile

• The 2013 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index ranks countries on how much they respect Press freedom.

• The UK is currently listed 29th out of 179 countries. However, the failure to extend the Defamation Bill to Northern Ireland could see it slide down the list next time.

• Eritrea and North Korea are worst for Press freedom.

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