Campaigners welcome influential report recommending reform of libel law in Northern Ireland

The Libel Reform Campaign has welcomed the Department of Finance’s report into libel law reform which recommends substantive reform of the law to better protect free speech and matters in the public interest.

The campaign in particular welcomes the inclusion of two prepared pieces of primary legislation that could be taken through the Northern Ireland Assembly, as the Defamation (Northern Ireland) Bill. The first bill is a bespoke bill that aims to build on the Defamation Act as applied successfully to England and Wales with strengthened protections for internet publishers and a wider Honest Opinion defence. The second bill is based closely on the Defamation Act 2013 as applied to England and Wales, as previously authored by Brian Garrett, Austen Morgan and Jeffrey Dudgeon and tabled by Mike Nesbitt MLA.

The campaign is now urging the Northern Ireland Assembly to adopt one of the draft Bills as a matter of urgency to ensure that the chill on freedom of expression in Northern Ireland on matters in the public interest is lifted.

The public consultation saw a significant number of scientists, academics, medics, lawyers and writers support reform of the law of libel. A short-form survey undertaken by the Libel Reform Campaign saw 522 of 552 respondees (94.5%) back our calls for reform of the law. The 552 responses was 7 times higher than the similar Ministry of Justice short-form consultation for England and Wales.

It comes after thirty-one authors – including novelists Colm Toibin, Roddy Doyle, Sebastian Barry, Father Ted writer Graham Linehan, former Beirut hostage Brian Keenan, academic and political analyst Lord Bew, poet Michael Longley and Lucy Caldwell, whose book All The Beggars Riding was selected as Belfast's second One City One Book choice, signed a letter calling for immediate libel law reform in Northern Ireland.

Jo Glanville, the Director of English PEN said:

“The overwhelming support shown for libel law reform in Northern Ireland shows how overdue a rewrite of the law is. Dr. Scott has produced an excellent report with draft legislation that can act as a blueprint for other countries to adopt. With huge public support for reform and the legal arguments now concluded, the Assembly must act and bring forward legislation this year.”

Síle Lane, Campaigns Director of Sense About Science said:

“It is very good news that the report announced by Minister Ó Muilleoir today calls for reform of the libel law in Northern Ireland. We are pleased that the report makes a strong recommendation for a public interest defence as this shows just how much the law needs to be rebalanced in favour of the public interest and away from the vested interests it serves now. The hundreds of citizens of Northern Ireland who pressed the Law Commission to call for reform now expect the Assembly to act quickly to implement the recommendations.”

Mike Harris, an advisor to the Libel Reform Campaign said:

“I’m delighted this consultation and Dr. Scott’s expert analysis has shown the case for reform of the law of libel in Northern Ireland is now irrefutable. It’s now time for the Assembly to protect free speech and get legislation passed this year.”

Cardiologist Dr Peter Wilmshurst said:

"I am extremely pleased to learn that the Northern Ireland Law Commission has published a report on libel reform with recommendations on a public interest defence, single publication rule and serious harm test. I hope that the draft bills containing the recommendations will be passed quickly by the Northern Ireland Assembly."

Science writer Dr Simon Singh said:

"Having been a victim of English libel law, and having seen how the Libel Reform Campaign has successfully argued for a fairer libel law in England and Wales, it is truly tremendous to see Northern Ireland following a similar path. Freedom of speech is one of the pillars of a free society, and it is crucial that Northern Ireland brings its defamation law up to date, particularly so that the rich and the powerful, as well as the bullies and the crooks, can be held to account."

The Libel Reform Campaign submitted evidence to the consultation which 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.

Read the report on the Review of the Law of Defamation on the Department of Finance website.

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