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Minister yet to act on ‘draconian’ libel laws months after receiving key report


Acting Justice Minister Heather Humphreys. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Acting Justice Minister Heather Humphreys. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Acting Justice Minister Heather Humphreys. Photo: Steve Humphreys

A REVIEW of Ireland’s defamation laws has been sitting on the acting Justice Minister’s desk since summer, the Irish Independent has learned.

Heather Humphreys got the report in July, but has yet to bring it to Cabinet for publication.

The lack of action on the report comes despite a stark warning from the European Commission that frequent defamation cases, high defence costs and high damages awarded by Irish courts were seen as an inducement to self-censorship and a constraint on media freedom.

European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders told an Oireachtas committee earlier this year these issues worked to the detriment of the fight against corruption.

The report, reviewing the Defamation Act 2009, is understood to recommend considerable change.

Under the Act, a review of its operation should have been started within five years of its commencement.

However, the review was announced by Frances Fitzgerald, then justice minister, only in November 2016, two years outside of the statutory requirement.

The process was beset by a series of as-yet-unexplained delays and, despite repeated assurances about its delivery date, the report was completed only earlier this year.

It remains unclear when it will go to Cabinet.

In response to queries from the Irish Independent, the Department of Justice would say only that this was expected to happen “soon”.

In a statement, the department said the review of defamation law was one of “a number of important legislative reform initiatives” being considered by Ms Humphreys.

The statement said it was a priority for the minister and the department “to get the reform of defamation law right, and to bring forward the required legislation at the earliest opportunity”.

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Several similar statements have been made in the past over the awaited review.

In May 2019, Charlie Flanagan, then justice minister, said he expected to receive the review “in the coming weeks” with a view to bringing proposals to Government that autumn.

Similarly, in October 2020 Justice Minister Helen McEntee said she expected to receive the review “in the coming weeks” and intended to bring proposals for change to Government by the end of the year.

When this did not happen, the department said last January the review would be given to the minister “in the coming weeks” and to the Government “as soon as possible thereafter”. A similar statement was again issued last March.

The delay in reviewing the Defamation Act stands in stark contrast to the manner in which a similar review of the Protected Disclosures Act 2014 was conducted.

That Act said a review of the legislation must be made no more than four years after its enactment. A review was started by Paschal Donohoe, then public expenditure and reform minister, in 2017 and a report published in 2018.

News industry group Newsbrands Ireland has described Ireland’s defamation regime as “draconian” and is seeking a cap on damages and an end to the use of juries in such trials.

Other jurisdictions have modernised their defamation laws but Ireland has not.

As a result, it is often considered a more “favourable” location for litigants to sue in.

This has given rise to “libel tourism”, a prominent recent example of which was the filing of a defamation suit in Dublin by American motivational speaker Tony Robbins against a UK subsidiary of New York-headquartered internet media firm Buzzfeed.

The High Court upheld Mr Robbins’ right to sue in Dublin, even though the Irish readership of the impugned articles was a tiny fraction of the US readership, the potential witnesses live in North America, and the website is hosted in the US.

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