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Civil servant Sir Gerry Loughran's lawsuit against News Letter can include malice claim, court rules

A former top civil servant suing over press coverage of a Stormont watchdog report can claim malice as part of his case, a High Court judge ruled today.

Lawyers for the News Letter wanted that part of Sir Gerry Loughran's libel action struck out, arguing that it was too late to make the allegation.

But Mr Justice Gillen held that the issue should go before a jury now expected to hear the lawsuit later this year.

As press reporting restrictions were lifted in the case, it also emerged that the newspaper has secured a separate determination that one of the articles is covered by qualified privilege.

Sir Gerry, a former Permanent Secretary at the Department of Economic Development and Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, has brought defamation proceedings over the News Letter's coverage of a Public Accounts Committee report in 2012.

The PAC had been investigating the Bioscience and Tecnology Institute (BTI), a non-profit company set up in 1998 to provide a cutting edge building for new biotech firms.

Its report contained a number of criticisms of the BTI and alleged incompetence and mismanagement of the project on the part of Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment officials.

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Two articles and a tweet by a journalist are at the centre of the case.

Sir Gerry's lawyers argue that studying the appendix of a separate Northern Ireland Audit Office report would have revealed his limited involvement in the BTI before he left DETI in 2000.

In a preliminary ruling on the issue of alleged malice, Mr Justice Gillen held that it was for the jury to decide when the case reaches trial.

He said it will have to determine whether it was absurd to expect the newspaper's journalists to read an allegedly entirely separate and lengthy government report and then evaluate the two documents together, or whether the NIAO report underlies the PAC findings.

Findings of malice are rare, the judge pointed out.

"However, I must be wary of dismissing too readily the notion that this could be one of those rare occasions," he said.

"It is a matter for the jury to determine if they would find it absurd for the defendant or its journalists to contend either they had failed to read the chronology to obtain the timeline or, having read it, it was mere inadvertence or carelessness to overlook it when asserting the words that were published about the plaintiff in this instance."

After delivering his verdict Mr Justice Gillen listed the case for a five-day hearing in the autumn.

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