Is the law to protect or to hide behind?
To mark World Press Freedom Day 2019, which took place on Friday, May 3 last, Local Ireland, the representative association for Ireland’s leading local news publishers, both print and online, has launched a campaign to highlight the urgent need for the reform of Ireland’s defamation laws.
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.
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.
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 with the offices of the Press Ombudsman and the Press Council.
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.
What can be done to bring Ireland’s Defamation Law into line with the rest of Europe?
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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 personal injuries actions.
4. 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 can result in unpredictable levels of awards.
These 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 powerful.
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