Wednesday 26 April 2017

When libel payouts make fruit baskets of us all, maybe it's time to drop juries

In England damages are effectively capped at £275,000 (€304,000), with the majority of awards being much lower, as Albert Reynolds discovered in 1996 when he was awarded one penny in damages following his successful libel action against the ‘Sunday Times’. Photo: REUTERS/Dylan Martinez/files
In England damages are effectively capped at £275,000 (€304,000), with the majority of awards being much lower, as Albert Reynolds discovered in 1996 when he was awarded one penny in damages following his successful libel action against the ‘Sunday Times’. Photo: REUTERS/Dylan Martinez/files

James McDermott

'If that's justice then I'm a banana," announced Ian Hislop in 1989, moments after a High Court jury in London had awarded Sonia Sutcliffe, the wife of the Yorkshire Ripper, an astronomical £600,000 (€665,000)against Hislop's 'Private Eye' magazine. In recent years, huge awards of damages by juries have also become a common feature of Irish libel law, leaving many defendants looking for space in Hislop's fruit bowl.

The highest award was the €10m in damages awarded by a jury in 2010 to businessman Donal Kinsella over a press release issued by his employer that wrongly insinuated that he had made inappropriate advances to a female colleague during a naked sleepwalking incident whilst on a business trip to Africa.

Then there was the award of €1.87m made by a High Court jury in 2009 to communications consultant Monica Leech over a series of articles in the 'Evening Herald' that falsely suggested that she was having an extramarital affair with a government minister. This award was subsequently reduced on appeal by the Supreme Court to €1.25m, but has led to the newspaper group challenging Ireland's defamation laws before the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that they have a serious chilling effect on freedom of expression.

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