Wednesday 13 December 2017

European Court upholds INM appeal over Monica Leech award in major ruling on Irish libel law

European Court finds libel award a 'violation of freedom of expression'

The European Court of Human Rights
The European Court of Human Rights
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

The European Court of Human Rights has upheld a complaint from Independent News & Media (INM) that a €1.25m libel award to PR consultant Monica Leech amounted to a violation of freedom of expression.

The media group, publishers of this website, had taken a case to Europe’s highest court alleging the award paid to public relations consultant Monica Leech amounted to a disproportionate interference with its freedom of expression.

The court upheld the complaint, saying the award amounted to a violation of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides a right to freedom of expression and information.

The ruling does not have any impact on the size of the award given to Ms Leech, but sends out a clear message on the need for Irish courts to rein in libel awards..

In the proceedings the company alleged there was a violation of its right to freedom of expression due to a disproportionately high award of damages against it in the defamation case and this reflected the inadequacy and ineffectiveness of domestic safeguards designed to prevent such awards.

It argued that under laws in force at the time, juries in defamation cases had practically unlimited discretion in assessing damages.

The company submitted that the trial judge was not permitted to offer any useful or meaningful guidance to the jury, such as relevant comparisons or even a range of figures.

At the end of the proceedings it had to pay Ms Leech a very high sum in damages, more than 50 times the average annual wage in Ireland, as well as her high legal costs, including those incurred on appeal.

In its ruling, published this morning, the court said that as a rule unpredictably large damages’ awards in libel cases are considered capable of having a chilling effect on the press.

It said that it is not the place of the ECHR to take the place of the national court.

It said the issue it had to assess was the nature and extent of the directions to be given to the jury by the trial judge to guide it in its assessment of damages and protect against disproportionate awards and, in the event that the appellate court engages in a fresh assessment, relevant and sufficient reasons for the substituted award.

The court noted that the Leech proceedings were conducted under laws which have since been changed with the adoption of the 2009 Defamation Act, which includes new provisions regarding the assessment of damages.

Under the 2009 Act it is now possible for the trial judge to give more detailed directions to a jury as to the assessment of damages.

The court also ruled the State must pay €20,000 to INM for costs and expenses related to the case.

Ms Leech, a Waterford-based PR consultant, was awarded a total of €1.87m by a High Court jury after finding she had been libelled in a series of stories published in the Evening Herald in 2004.

The figure was reduced to €1.25m by the Supreme Court following an appeal.

In a statement, released this evening, INM Group Editor-in Chief Stephen Rae said: "The judgment is a very positive step forward in our campaign as journalists to reform the expensive and oppressive defamation law in Ireland.

“Inordinate damages awards in libel cases can have a negative effect on freedom of expression in a democracy. The ECHR ruling is further proof that the Government needs to pay the issue serious attention. We call on the Government to take the European Court of Human Rights decision fully on board in its review of the Defamation Act.

“Swift action is required to uphold and support trusted and verified journalism across all publishers and broadcasters in Ireland. This is increasingly urgent in the face of the ongoing assault on media posed by fake news and hate on social media platforms."

“I’d like pay tribute to Managing Editor Ed McCann, his predecessor Michael Denieffe, our legal advisors Meagher & Co and previously Simon McAleese & Co for all their efforts in bringing this successful appeal.”

NewsBrands Ireland, which represents sixteen national newspaper titles, also welcomed the decision and said our defamation system is a challenge to the freedom of expression of the media.

They said in a statement this evening: "In particular, NewsBrands welcomes the Court’s statement that 'unpredictably high damages in libel cases are considered capable of having a chilling effect and they therefore require the most careful scrutiny and very strong justification.'

"The Irish defamation regime imposes enormous burdens on Irish newspapers and presents a huge challenge to freedom of expression.

"The retention of juries and the system of appeals creates delays and also a lack of certainty for publishers who have no way to ascertain the extent of their potential liability."

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