Justice Minister Simon Harris says abolishing juries in libel actions a 'cornerstone' of new laws

Justice Minister Simon Harris Photo: Gareth Chaney/ Collins Photos

Senan Molony, political correspondent

The abolition of juries in High Court defamation actions is a “cornerstone” of a planned new libel law, Minister for Justice Simon Harris has said.

New legislation to go before committee will also increase the ability to take action against online reputational attack, while tackling so-called SLAPPs, which refers to strategic lawsuits against public participation.

Mr Harris said some legal actions by Sinn Féin individuals was an attempt to have a chilling effect in his opinion, but it was for others to judge and they were “not the only party doing it”.

It had long been recognised that Ireland’s libel laws were too draconian, he said, noting that juries had been abolished in other civil cases.

He also noted that when a jury gave a verdict at present, “it does not have to give a rationale,” unlike the bench in delivering a judgement.

Another feature of the legislation is for equal prominence to be given for any correction or apology.

Asked if this would disfigure front pages, Mr Harris said: “We’ll tease through the details.”

But in the case of an inaccurate front page story, he said it was right that there be an unmissable correction, rather than burying it “on page 63, under the horoscopes.”

Told of disappointment from a media body that the legislation does not place a cap on damages, Mr Harris said the direction of travel in the legislation had been clearly signalled.

Nothing being published in the Bill should come as a surprise to any interests, he said.

Instead it marked “significant progress” on a Programme for Government commitment to review and reform defamation laws, he said.

“Democracy cannot truly flourish without robust protection for the right of freedom of expression,” he said.

“Of course, this must always be carefully balanced with safeguarding the individual right to good name and reputation, and the right of access to justice. I believe this legislation strikes the right balance.”

The abolition of juries in High Court defamation actions will be joined by a requirement that solicitors inform their clients of alternative dispute resolution options, including mediation, before issuing proceedings.

A defendant may also lodge an offer of settlement in court which would be taken into account in determining costs. There are also provisions to address the issue of ‘libel tourism’ by requiring a judge to determine if Ireland is the right place to entertain the action.

There is also reform of the defence of ‘fair and reasonable publication’ on a matter of public interest to make the position simpler and clearer

A person allegedly defamed online can now apply to the Circuit Court, rather than the costly High Court, fora ‘Norwich Pharmacal’ order – meaning a service provider must provide information identifying an anonymous owner and operator of an account, thereby identifying the author or poster of a defamatory statement.

There are powers for the removal of a defamatory statement, or alternatively block access to the statement.

A new statutory Notice of Complaint will make it easier and cheaper to notify a digital publisher of online defamatory content and request takedown.

Mr Harris said: “I want to ensure that our legislation addresses the challenges posed by an increasingly complex media landscape.

“This legislation provides for more efficient and less costly resolutions of defamation proceedings - as well as effectively tackling the new and specific problems raised by online defamation.

“The abolition of juries in High Court defamation actions will reduce the likelihood of disproportionate and unpredictable awards, and high legal costs.”