Belfast Telegraph

Monday 20 October 2014

Libel law reform will protect us all

The progress of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill may not seem exciting to members of the general public but its implications for everyone here may be far-reaching.

The bill deals with a variety of issues but it contains an important amendment to extend the Defamation Act 2013 to the law of Northern Ireland.

Inexplicably the Stormont Executive failed last year to adopt this eminently sensible reform to our outdated libel laws and its reluctance to do so is consistently opposed by this newspaper.

The danger is that Northern Ireland could become the new libel capital of Europe due to a lower threshold for proving one's case.

While the rest of the United Kingdom has accepted the new Defamation Act, the libel law in Northern Ireland remains firmly rooted in legislation that was passed well before the arrival of the social media and the internet.

The details of the legislative procedure here remain complex, but the bottom line is clear for the defenders of free speech – the Defamation Bill needs to be introduced as soon as possible to Northern Ireland.

Last year the Stormont Finance Minister Simon Hamilton asked the Northern Ireland Law Commission to examine the bill. UUP leader Mike Nesbitt had previously introduced a Private Member's Bill but this was delayed after Mr Hamilton's move.

However, the wheels are moving slowly and the intervention of Westminster peers Lords Lexden, Bew and Black must be welcomed.

In reality it may be a way of trying to pressurise the Northern Ireland Executive on a matter that constitutionally seems to be devolved to Stormont.

This is not just a matter for those who work in the media but for everyone who uses modern technology to express his or her views, bearing in mind the prevailing law on libel in Northern Ireland.

As we have noted earlier, this is a complex issue but we still hold out the hope that the Stormont authorities will take a pragmatic view on this issue and help to bring the libel laws in Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. The move by the lords may not stand constitutionally but will surely bring some pressure to bear.

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