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It is time to review our laws on libel

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 Yesterday, Sarah Jane O'Callaghan, defending, told Judge Mary Ellen Ring that the trial was likely to take two weeks

Yesterday, Sarah Jane O'Callaghan, defending, told Judge Mary Ellen Ring that the trial was likely to take two weeks

Getty Images/Ingram Publishing

Yesterday, Sarah Jane O'Callaghan, defending, told Judge Mary Ellen Ring that the trial was likely to take two weeks

It is perhaps only human nature that we can all focus more on our own woes than on the woes of others. Our own hurts are always heavier in the scales when weighed against those of strangers. However, when it comes to the law of libel it is very difficult to recognise what rubric applies.

In personal injuries cases, for instance, an injured person might get anything from €23,300 to €35,700 for a minor skull fracture, but in libel law, should a newspaper say something libellous, an individual might be awarded €85,000. That is exactly what happened yesterday when a High Court jury awarded precisely that sum in damages to former Liverpool and Chelsea footballer David Speedie.

The jury considered two newspaper articles and, after two days of deliberation, gave their answer to eight questions put to them. In answer to whether the first article meant Mr Speedie engaged in criminal activity, it said "no".

But it replied "yes" as to whether that article meant gardaí had reason to suspect he was involved in criminal activity. So while they did not believe the article meant he was involved in criminal acts, they felt it suggested to readers that gardaí nonetheless had reason to suspect him.

We have always, in this country, placed a certain value on our reputation. Our courts take transgressors to task and order compensation to be paid when a person's good name is wrongfully tarnished.

It is also vital, however, that a sense of proportion should prevail commensurate with the perceived libel.

While the Defamation Act 2009 introduced many worthwhile and welcome reforms, including the right for the first time for juries to receive guidance in relation to the matter of damages, questions remain concerning the effectiveness of some of those reforms.

The Act provided, unusually, that a review of its operation must take place within five years of its enactment, ie, by the end of 2015. It is important that this review is wide-ranging and comprehensive to ensure that a level playing field prevails between the parallel rights to a good name and to freedom of expression.

Irish Independent