Libel Reform Campaign finds overwhelming support for reform in Northern Ireland

Written by Robert Sharp
March 09, 2015
Category: Northern Ireland

The Libel Reform Campaign has found overwhelming support for free speech and scientific freedom in a survey conducted to support the work of the Northern Ireland Law Commission. The campaign’s survey found overwhelming support for the full adoption of the Defamation Act 2013 to reform Northern Ireland’s antiquated law of libel, which fails to protect writers, academics and scientists who speak out and criticise the rich and powerful and were criticised by the UN Human Rights Committee.

The campaign is now calling for the Northern Ireland Law Commission to act with speed and publish the results of its consultation, before the Commission is abolished at the end of March.

Science writer Simon Singh said:

I was sued for libel and lost two years of my life, just because I was raising the alarm on a matter of children's health. I wouldn't wish this on anyone, and this sort of law only means that fewer people speak out and matters of public concern are covered up. That's why it's so important that 6 years after this campaign began, we finally get the reform of libel that both the public and journalists want. Unless the law is reformed, other science writers or academics could be chilled in Northern Ireland from speaking out in the public interest. That's wrong and dangerous.

Jo Glanville, the Director of English PEN said:

The public support for libel reform in Northern Ireland is clear. The response to the Law Commission's consultation should be published at the earliest opportunity so that there is no further delay in bringing overdue reform to Northern Ireland.

Síle Lane, Campaigns Director of Sense About Science said:

The hundreds of people calling for a public interest defence are the parents, voters, consumers and patients of Northern Ireland who want to be able to read and ask questions about vital issues of public interest. The current, chilling, libel laws mean they are at risk of being left with an impoverished public discussion. Northern Ireland’s policy makers need to recognise this and act urgently to remedy it.

747 members of the public signed the campaign’s petition which stated:

If the consultation shows support for reform, we call on Assembly members to apply the Defamation Act with immediate effect. The people of Northern Ireland should be allowed to enjoy the benefits of a reformed law that better balances free expression with reputation.

552 people answered the campaign’s survey with overwhelming support for reform of the law. 95% of these responses backed the application of the Defamation Act 2013 to Northern Ireland. 75% said no to the principle that corporations and the government should be allowed to sue citizens. 92% agreed that there should be a stronger public interest defence in Northern Ireland beyond the current defence in the law and 81% agreed that claimants should they have to prove that they have been seriously harmed before going to Court and in the process running up significant costs.

The significant support for the “serious harm” hurdle is in contrast to the position outlined by lawyer Paul Tweed who has argued the hurdle “makes it more difficult for the electorate... to protect themselves".

The Libel Reform Campaign also submitted evidence to the Law Commission to make the case for reform. This evidence was endorsed by a number of Northern Irish academics, writers, journalists and lawyers including Lord Bew, Dr. Tom Woolley, Paul Connolly and Lyra McKee, Brian Garrett, Glenn Patterson and Brian John Spencer.

For more information please contact:

Mike Harris
07974 838468
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