Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Libel laws are fit for purpose

Lawyer Paul Tweed
Lawyer Paul Tweed

During an intense and often vitriolic debate in the House of Lords on the decision not to implement the Defamation Act 2013 in Northern Ireland, the failure to even mention the similar stance taken by Scotland is bewildering.

Indeed, Scottish justice minister Kenny MacAskill has been robust in stating that "the Scottish government has no plans for wholesale reform in this area".

A number of peers and the usual sections of the Press have chosen to ignore this fact in their attempts to portray Northern Ireland as the lone miscreant in failing to toe the line within the UK.

Worse, in their determination to ensure compliance, rather than leaving the Law Commission and Assembly to make an independent decision in relation to their own legislation, some peers attempted to force the legislation on the province by the back door in the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.

Scaremongering in the print media inferred that 'libel tourists' will be descending on Belfast like triffids. There has been no sign to date of this happening.

Indeed, last year I represented a national newspaper in defending a claim brought by a personal litigant, which the court in Belfast dismissed on the grounds that the plaintiff had insufficient connections with the province and that Northern Ireland was, therefore, not an appropriate jurisdiction to hear his claim.

Fortunately, some of the victims of character assassination in the Press may still have the option of seeking vindication in the Republic, where defamation legislation has been recently introduced, but on a fairer and more equitable basis than the new UK.

The fact that the Irish defamation act remains broadly similar to current Northern Ireland law has also been conveniently ignored by the Press. Certainly, there has been no mass exodus of newspapers from Ireland.

Another question is whether England and Wales are out of step with Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic in failing to offer practical protection for the public, while seeking to prevent the ordinary man on the street from sitting on a jury in judgment of the worst excesses of the media.

Paul Tweed is a senior partner at Johnsons Solicitors

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