Northern Ireland's outdated libel laws may yet reflect the 21st century
Referring the Defamation Bill to the Law Commission may stymie its passage through the Assembly, but it holds out the prospect of real reform of the libel laws
The news that Finance Minister Simon Hamilton has asked the Northern Ireland Law Commission to examine the Stormont Defamation Bill is good news for Ulster's publishers, broadcasters, bloggers and academics.
While the rest of the UK will see the new Defamation Act 2013 coming into force on January 2, 2014, Northern Ireland libel law remains rooted in legislation that was formulated well before the internet and social media became part of our everyday lives.
For those of us who are keen to see this relatively obscure, but fundamentally important area of law updated as soon as possible, Mr Hamilton's intervention could be the best way of achieving at least a measure of reform.
After all, if the NI Law Commission advocates reforms, it is hard to see how those reforms could be different from the rest of the UK.
As a solicitor who advises publishers and broadcasters in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, I can hear some people already thinking: "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?"
So, don't just take my word for it. Let me quote from a speech which Lord Black gave in the House of Lords on this very issue:
"On the surface, it may appear to some to be a rather dry and technical legal issue. But, in reality, it is a challenge to UK law that will, unless resolved swiftly, have grave and far-reaching consequences – for the future of the creative economies and jobs in Northern Ireland, for the tens of thousands of ordinary citizens there who use the internet, for journalists on newspapers both in the province and throughout the United Kingdom and, perhaps above all, for the quality of government in Northern Ireland."
The point about the Defamation Act 2013 is that it should make it easier for those working in the creative industries in England, Wales and Scotland, to understand and to apply the law. The Act tackles the so-called "chilling effect" of the current law on freedom of expression.
And, importantly, it updates the law regarding online comment and publishing.
Bearing in mind that anyone who comments and writes online is now a publisher, this is an issue which affects a huge number of people – not just professional journalists.
Some commentators have described the Northern Ireland Executive's decision not to adopt the new legislation as "inexplicable".
When you look at the profound changes that have occurred to our way of life because of the growth and importance of the internet and social media, it's hard not to agree with them.
And it's not only publishers and broadcasters who are affected by the decision not to adopt the new law.
A major change resulting from the Defamation Act 2013 is to afford protection to academics and their peer reviews of academic works. There have been a number of high-profile cases in which academics were sued for libel after they criticised other people's papers and positions.
It will now be much easier – and safer – for academic works to be criticised and commented upon in the UK. How Northern Ireland's world-class universities will feel about the continuing restrictions on their ability to comment is not difficult to imagine.
I expressed concern when the news first emerged about the decision not to implement the new Defamation Act in Northern Ireland. This is why I greatly welcome the referral of the Defamation Bill to the Northern Ireland Law Commission.
While, in the short term, it may stymie the further passage of Mike Nesbitt's Private Member's Bill, it demonstrates that reform might be possible after all. And sooner than we think.