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Libel and blasphemy bill passed by the Dail

MAJOR new legislation reforming the State's libel laws and enabling judges to advise juries on the size of damages was passed in the Dáil yesterday.

The Defamation Bill, which also introduces a new crime of blasphemous libel, will come into operation after it is passed by the Seanad later this week and signed into law by President Mary McAleese.

The legislation, which the media industry broadly supports, also aims to ensure that the recently established Press Council operates as efficiently as possible.

It also enables newspapers to offer an apology without risking an admission of liability, and to defend libel actions by arguing that a story was in the public interest.

The new laws are expected to be in full operation by October.

In recent months, the stalled legislation was the subject of major debate when Justice Minister Dermot Ahern announced the introduction of a new crime of blasphemous libel. He argued that a new definition was required by the Constitution.

Under the changes, the maximum fine for blasphemy will be cut from €100,000 to €25,000.

During a debate on 33 proposed amendments to the legislation yesterday, Mr Ahern refused calls from Opposition parties to continue the debate today.

He claimed that TDs had debated the legislation "endlessly" since 2006 and it was now time to pass it.

"There is an understanding that it will and should pass before the summer.

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"Many of the following amendments are simply a regurgitation of what members discussed on Committee Stage ad nauseam and of what has been debated in the Seanad and the Dáil over the past two years," Mr Ahern said.

Sinn Fein's Aengus O Snodaigh earlier argued that the legislation should be changed so that TDs who took a legal case or who were sued could remain in public office if they ended up bankrupt.

Under current rules, if a TD becomes bankrupt, they are debarred from elected office.

However, Mr Ahern said these concerns could be dealt with in the context of the ethics-in-public-office or electoral legislation. He did not adopt the Sinn Fein proposal.

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