Saturday 17 August 2019

Defamation cases 'could be resolved outside of courts'

Chief Justice Frank Clarke. Picture: Colin O'Riordan
Chief Justice Frank Clarke. Picture: Colin O'Riordan
Sorcha O'Connor

Sorcha O'Connor

Defamation trials should be shorter and less costly, according to Chief Justice Frank Clarke.

He said that if judges were to meet the sides before a trial and "work through the issues", then costs could be halved.

Mr Justice Clarke was speaking at the launch of the Press Council's 2018 annual report.

According to the report, the Defamation Act 2009 is a "major threat" to press freedom, as juries have made substantial awards which were later deemed excessive in higher courts, including the European Court of Human Rights.

The Chief Justice said he was in favour of pre-trial procedures, but pointed out that more resources may be needed.

Asked what he thought of the cost and duration of defamation cases, he said: "We need to look at many ways of making trials shorter and more efficient."

He added that "pre-trial procedures may be devised".

"I suspect defamation would benefit if a judge could sit down with people beforehand and work through the issues and see what really has to be resolved," he said.

"You could half the length of trials and by definition, the cost. I am very much in favour of that," he added.

The Press Council said it supported more mediation before defamation cases reach the courts.

This could include pre-trial procedures such as a judge sitting with the involved parties outside of court. Efficient and immediate action from editors, such as inviting people to write a letter to the editor to air their grievance, could also settle disputes more quickly.

An editor and complainant might meet, on a voluntary and confidential basis, to discuss a complaint with the aim of arriving at a mutually satisfactory settlement.

The process is facilitated by a neutral mediator, who will help clarify issues and explore how best to resolve the issues raised.

This method is described in the report as being "swift". If it does not work, complaints will go down the traditional legal path.

According to the report, the fact that substantial defamation awards were later deemed to be excessive by higher courts casts doubt on whether juries should be allowed to decide on the size of awards.

Chairman of the Press Council Seán Donlon lamented the slow progress in publishing a review of the 2009 Defamation Act, two years on from its announcement in November 2016.

Press Ombudsman Peter Feeney said he had "huge sympathy" for editors and journalists.

"Even with reduced resources, you still have to fill newspapers every day," he said.

Mr Feeney added that the pressure on journalists to produce several stories a day came with "huge risks".

"We need papers to inform citizens and journalism is integral to democracy," he added.

Mr Feeney received 464 complaints last year, of which 30 were decided upon and 10 were upheld. Another 272 were not pursued by the complainant and 111 were found to be outside of his remit.

Irish Independent

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