News publishers join forces to lobby for urgent reform of Ireland’s defamation laws at special briefing in Leinster House

A ‘Journalism Matters’ special briefing hosted by NewsBrands Ireland and Local Ireland, the representative bodies for national and local news publishers, took place in Leinster House today.

The event was an opportunity for politicians from across the political divide to hear from publishers and editors about the crucial role journalism plays in a healthy democracy and the urgent need for reform of defamation laws.  A panel discussion moderated by Business Post Editor Daniel McConnell, highlighted that Ireland’s outdated and ineffective defamation laws are having a chilling effect on the media’s role as the public’s watchdog and its ability to reveal matters of vital public interest.

Speaking on the panel were Noirin Hegarty, Editor The Sunday Times, Ruadhán Mac Cormaic, Editor, The Irish Times, and Dave O’Connell, Editor, Connacht Tribune. The key issues raised by the panel were the need for the abolition of juries in defamation actions and the introduction of a serious harm test.

Reform of our defamation laws is long overdue. Following a seven-year delay, the report of the review of the Defamation Act 2009 was finally published in March 2022, with the General Scheme of the Defamation (Amendment) Bill published earlier this year.

Speaking at the event, Colm O’ Reilly, Chairman of NewsBrands Ireland, said: “It is crucial that the reforms, now prioritised by Government, be implemented as quickly as possible and, certainly, within the legislative timeframe of the current Dáil. A failure to implement these changes speedily would continue to undermine the work of the independent media in Ireland, which further erodes the proper functioning of democracy in this country.”

Abolition of juries

NewsBrands has been calling for the abolition of juries in defamation actions for almost 40 years. Jury trials are unpredictable, time consuming and costly. Their decisions lack transparency. A number of jury awards, giving damages greatly in excess of those available in severe personal injury actions, have served to bring the legal system into disrepute.

The decision-making process of juries in defamation actions is opaque. They do not have to explain how they came to their decision, how they applied the law or how they assessed the level of an award. A reasoned decision by a judge brings predictability to the process and chimes with the need for greater openness and transparency in public life.

A trial before a jury lengthens considerably the time taken to run a case. They are often twice as long as equivalent cases before a Judge. This leads to greatly increased legal costs and a considerable waste of court time.

Serious Harm Test

The General Scheme provides for a serious harm test in cases involving companies, public authorities and retailers, and it accepts the need for such a test. It is a mystery why it is not being introduced in all defamation cases.

This test, already successfully operated in the UK, discourages trivial defamation claims that can chill free expression and inundate the 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 the Press Ombudsman. It also deters libel tourism.

As is the case with retail outlets, the Irish media faces, on an almost daily basis, unwarranted and exaggerated claims for defamation. The costs of defending these claims are significant and these costs are often unrecoverable even where the defense succeeds.

A serious harm test for all defamation proceedings would act as a deterrent to vexatious claims and alleviate the risks to Ireland associated with ‘libel tourism.’