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Work to overhaul Northern Ireland's outdated libel laws gets under way again


UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt (Niall Carson/PA)

UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt (Niall Carson/PA)


UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt (Niall Carson/PA)

Work has restarted on replacing Northern Ireland's outdated libel laws, Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt has revealed.

A former journalist, Mr Nesbitt has a private members bill on the issue sitting with the Assembly.

There has been renewed support for the bill from Finance Minister Conor Murphy.

"It's sitting with the bills' office and everything has been slowed down due to Covid," he said.

"Mr Murphy contacted me by email on Monday night to say that work has recommenced.

"He told me that although insufficient time remains to amend the existing legislation here, the work now being undertaken in his department provides a 'sound evidence base for legislative change under the next mandate'."

Mr Nesbitt said there was an "open and shut case" for a major overhaul of Northern Ireland's existing libel laws as they were so outdated.

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"It's encouraging the issue hasn't been set to one side, but the DUP have been consistently hostile to it," said Mr Nesbitt.

"I now have to consider whether to sit back and take Mr Murphy at his word and allow it to progress naturally, and I don't question his word in any way."

A Department of Finance spokesperson confirmed: "Work is ongoing within the department to review defamation law and to provide a sound evidence base for legislative change under the next mandate.

"In reforming the law it's important to strike the right balance between free speech and ensuring people can protect their reputation."

The defamation laws were reformed in England and Wales in 2013, though new legislation did not extend to Northern Ireland.

In 2016 a report commissioned by Stormont's Department of Finance, authored by Dr Andrew Scott of The London School of Economics and Political Science, recommended Northern Ireland's libel laws be brought substantially into line with England and Wales.

Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors, said the conference was an opportunity to look closely at threats to press freedom in Northern Ireland.

"Following the passage of the Defamation Act 2013 in England and Wales, concerted efforts have been made to ensure that similar meaningful reform of libel laws in Northern Ireland come to fruition," he said.

"Alongside the issue of media plurality and the use of privacy injunctions to try to stifle legitimate reporting, journalists continue to face online abuse and paramilitary threats. We look forward to hearing what can be done to end this."

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