None of the Defamation Act 2013 has been extended to Northern Ireland, and former Minister for Finance & Personnel Sammy Wilson MLA said he had "no plans" to review the law. This leaves citizens in Northern Ireland with far fewer free speech protections than their neighbours elsewhere in the UK.
Some of Northern Ireland’s most prominent writers, academics, scientists, lawyers, journalists and bloggers have come together to back reform of Northern Ireland’s archaic libel laws.
The newly launched Advisory Council of the Northern Ireland Libel Reform Campaign will be urging Stormont to undertake essential reform of the law to protect free speech and ensure that public interest reporting is not curtailed by the current law, elements of which pre-date the invention of the light bulb.
The Advisory Council will be crucial in gathering evidence of the impact of the law of libel on free speech and scientific inquiry across society, which will be used as part of the Northern Ireland Law Commission’s consultation later this year. The campaign asks anyone with evidence of libel threats to contact them via their website libelreform.org.
The Advisory Council is formed of Queen’s Professor Colm Campbell and former Professor, Dr. Tom Woolley, journalists Paul Connolly and Lyra McKee, lawyers Neil Faris, Brian Garrett, Niamh Hargan and Olivia O’Kane, novelist Glenn Patterson, blogger Brian John Spencer and Mike Harris, Jo Glanville and Sile Lane from the Libel Reform Campaign.
On Wednesday 7th May the Libel Reform Campaign will bring together writers, journalists, scientists, academics, human rights advocates and civil society organisations to form a coalition to reform the law of libel in Northern Ireland.
There is a real concern that the current law of libel in Northern Ireland is chilling open discussion about academic and scientific research. We need this coalition to make the case for reform of these archaic laws to the Northern Ireland Law Commission consultation on libel reform, which is expected to launch soon.
The failure to extend the Defamation Act 2013 to Northern Ireland has created a loophole in the law that could undermine everything we have fought so hard for. You can read the campaign's criticisms of the law and the process that led to the new Defamation Act not being applied to Northern Ireland here and here.
We would appreciate your attendance at this event to help bring together the coalition. Jo Glanville from English PEN, Síle Lane from Sense About Science will be joined by others campaigning for libel reform in Northern Ireland.
The event will be hosted in The Lab at the Belfast MAC (10 Exchange Street West, Belfast BT1 2NJ) from 10am - 12.30pm on 7th May. Refreshments will be provided.
Please RSVP here.
As you may be aware, the new defences in the Defamation Act have been blocked from being extended to Northern Ireland. DUP minister Sammy Wilson said our demands for reform were “nonsense” and refused to consider any change.
This undeniably leaves the people of Northern Ireland with fewer free speech rights than other citizens in the UK. Even worse: this unexpected decision has created a loophole in the law. Libel lawyers have already begun touting Belfast to potential litigants as a claimant friendly jurisdiction. This creates uncertainty and confusion for journalists and publishers throughout the United Kingdom.
Mr Wilson’s successor as Minister of Finance and Personnel has since referred the matter to the Northern Ireland Law Commission. This is positive step... but the Commission’s review process could take years. It’s clear that the political elites in Northern Ireland want to ignore this issue. But while they delay, the entire United Kingdom is stuck with a confusing, two-tier libel law that the rich bullies can’t wait to exploit.
It looks like we’ll have to break the consensus. Again.
We need your help to mobilise civil society in Northern Ireland to demand libel reform. The campaign already has hundreds of supporters in the province, but we need more if we want Assembly Members to take notice and sort this out. To do that we need to spend time and money on public events and campaigning materials. We’re confident that the more people we reach, the more people will back reform.
Will you make a donation to the Libel Reform Campaign’s 2014 appeal? If everyone who signed the campaign petition donated just £5 we would have enough to campaign on this issue for the rest of the year, and beyond. Of course, if you can spare a little more than £5 that would be even better! Everything helps.
Proposed http://portageparkdistrict.org Private Member’s Bill on the law of defamation in Northern Ireland
Consultation survey: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/H9YHDSL
The full response from the Libel Reform Campaign can be seen here.
Question 1. Do you agree with the inclusion of a substantial harm test in the Bill?
The Libel Reform Campaign has always argued that the test should be ‘serious and substantial’ (because substantial in law merely means non-trivial or negligible, while serious means that it is serious enough to bring before a court). This would reduce the risk of the statute not reflecting the current position in case law.
This is an important clause. It prevents trivial or vexatious claims from proceeding at great expense and with a chilling effect on freedom of expression. It is also beneficial to claimants, as it prevents them from proceeding with expensive cases where they have no reasonable prospect of success.
Question 2:Do you agree that the common law defence of justification should be replaced with the statutory defence of truth?
Truth is the oldest defence in libel – as stating the truth ought to be a justification, even if it does damage to the claimant’s reputation. Over time, case law has evolved so that statements are justified if they are found to be substantially (rather than in totally) true. The Defamation Act clause reflects this position.
The defence in any future legislation in Northern Ireland should be changed from the defence of ‘truth’ to ‘justification’ so as not to imply a narrowing of the defence. ‘Truth’ suggests that what is necessary is to demonstrate the ‘whole truth and nothing but the truth’ of the statement, when in fact the existing case law and the Defamation Act considers a statement justified when the ‘substantial truth’ of a defamatory imputation is demonstrated.
Leading writers call for libel reform in Northern Ireland
Thirty-one authors from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have called on the Northern Ireland Executive to introduce libel reform, warning that ‘Northern Ireland may become a new forum for libel bullies.’
The authors include Paul Bew, Lucy Caldwell, Anne Devlin, Roddy Doyle, Carolyn Jess-Cooke, Brian Keenan, Graham Linehan, Bernard MacLaverty, Gary Mitchell, Paul Muldoon, Christina Reid and Colm Tóibín.
The libel laws of England and Wales were reformed earlier this year, when Parliament passed the Defamation Act 2013 with cross-party support in Westminster. The new law includes measures to weed out trivial and vexatious claims, to limit libel tourism, and introduces a public interest defence.
However, the Northern Ireland Executive has so far made no plans to extend the provisions to Northern Ireland. In an open letter to First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness, the group of 31 authors, playwrights and poets says that this omission means ‘the people of Northern Ireland will enjoy fewer free speech protections than their fellow citizens in England and Wales’.
The authors also express concern for the development of literature in Northern Ireland. ‘As writers, we are particularly concerned about the impact of the unreformed libel laws on the freedom to write: biographers, historians, journalists and even novelists will remain vulnerable to libel actions on trivial and vexatious grounds. The mere threat of a libel action is also enough to discourage publishers from touching controversial subjects’ they write.
Although the Executive has signalled it does not intend to legislate on this issue, other members of the Stormont Assembly intend to open the debate for libel reform. Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt MLA will launch a consultation on a Private Members’ Defamation Bill on 19 September.
The signatories to the letter to the First Minister and the Deptuty First Minister are: Sebastian Barry, Paul Bew, Lucy Caldwell, Paul Charles, Gerald Dawe, Anne Devlin, Roddy Doyle, Carolyn Jess-Cooke, Brian Keenan, Graham Linehan, Michael Longley, Edna Longley, Bernard MacLaverty, Roisin McAuley, Brian McAvera, Anne McCartney, Michael McDowell, Tim McGarry, Frank McGuinness, Christina McKenna, Adrian McKinty, Gary Mitchell, Paul Muldoon, Stuart Neville, Glenn Patterson, Henry Patterson, Damon Quinn, Graham Reid, Christina Reid, Anne Tannahill and Colm Tóibín.
The full text of the letter organised by English PEN is available here. (pdf)
The Bookseller Novelists call for change in Northern Ireland libel laws