Ireland’s Draconian Defamation Laws Must Be Urgently Reformed – It’s in The Public Interest
Ireland’s defamation laws are among the most restrictive in Europe and throughout the English-speaking world. They result in having a chilling effect on the media’s role as the public’s watchdog and its ability to reveal matters of important public interest.
WHY SHOULD THE LAW BE UPDATED?
Quite simply, it’s in the best interest of the democracy for which you as a public representative work hard and devote yourself to uphold, at a time when democratic values are being threatened and undermined throughout the world. Of course, there’s ample recent evidence of important stories being exposed by Ireland’s media that otherwise would have remained secret. But other equally serious and important matters of public interest never get revealed because of defamation laws that impose potentially devastating levels of risk on publishers. Furthermore, the high level of awards and related legal costs are seriously jeopardising the financial viability of many local and national newspapers.
There is ample evidence that the ‘compo culture’ which is threatening the existence of many businesses today due to soaring insurance costs is mirrored in the exploitation of our defamation laws by claimants who – unlike in the UK – do not have to prove serious harm to their reputation, yet pursue monetary claims in preference to engaging the offices of the Press Ombudsman and the Press Council.
SETTING THE RIGHT BALANCE
Good defamation policy is categorically not about giving journalists a free rein to write what they like. It is about setting the right balance in order to protect people’s reputations and the need to defend and promote freedom of expression and the media’s ability to freely report on matters in the public interest.
REFORM IS LONG OVERDUE
The current Defamation Act 2009 was due for review by the Department of Justice in 2014. However, the review didn’t commence until November 2016. NewsBrands Ireland and Local Ireland, along with many other organisations, made submissions to the Department of Justice in January 2017. To date, the review has not been completed. This is unacceptable. The current Act is not fit for purpose and serves neither the public nor freedom of the press.
As mentioned earlier, it also facilitates a system where many complainants choose the legal route and the prospect of a monetary award, rather than utilising the services of the Office of Press Ombudsman and Press Council of Ireland, an independent and free mechanism for considering complaints that is funded by the industry.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO BRING IRELAND’S DEFAMATION LAW INTO LINE WITH THE REST OF EUROPE?
- As a first step, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform must complete and publish the findings of the review of the Defamation Act 2009.
- The new Defamation Act should include a ‘serious harm’ test. This test, already successfully in operation in the UK, discourages trivial claims that can chill free expression and inundate Irish courts with lengthy and costly court cases. Claimants who do not meet the test have the option to take their case to the Office of Press Ombudsman.
- Cap on damages. Damages in Ireland are much higher – often multiples of the equivalent awards in Europe. The Act should set a cap on court awards as is the practice in a personal injuries actions
- Abolition of juries. Defamation is virtually the only civil action that continues to be decided by juries. The use of juries considerably lengthens the duration of the trial, thus increasing legal costs, and the outcome and, and can result in unpredictable levels of awards.
The above recommendations will provide:
- A more balanced and fairer process for the resolution of defamation claims
- They will ensure freedom of expression
- And, crucially, that reputations can be protected in a manner available to everyone, not just the rich and the powerful
How you can support independent journalism If you want to support our campaign:
- Contact your local TD and tell him or her you want measures • to support independent journalism
- Tweet your support at #ChangeTheAct
- Follow us @newsbrandsirl for updates