Hamilton: I’ve an open mind about libel laws

Finance  Minister Simon Hamilton. .
Finance Minister Simon Hamilton. .

Stormont’s finance minister has said that he has a “fairly open mind” about reforming Northern Ireland’s libel laws — something blocked by his predecessor.

Simon Hamilton, who has passed the issue to the Law Commission, inherited a decision by Sammy Wilson to block British reform of the libel laws extending to the Province, a decision taken without the Executive being informed.

The decision only emerged when a question was asked in the House of Lords.

The DUP minister told the News Letter: “I sent it to the Law Commission some time ago because I was mindful that - whilst it was not a topic that anyone came into my constituency office or even wrote to me about - it was a topic of debate and discussion between members of the press and media and some in the legal profession.

“You were getting this said by one side and this said by the other side and clearly the law had progressed in England; it hadn’t progressed in the same way in Scotland.”

Mr Hamilton said that he believed it was best to “take it away from me taking a judgement on it” and allow the commission to decide “whether we needed to proceed on the same basis that England and Wales had ; whether we needed to proceed on the same basis as Scotland or whether we needed to find some formula that was right for Northern Ireland”.

He said that an initial report from the commission was likely at the end of this year.

When asked if his predecessor had been wrong to not consult the Executive before blocking libel reform, Mr Hamilton said: “It was before I came into office, so I’m not sure of all the machinations and movements that there were before that.”

He added: “I read some of this stuff in the press that ‘we’re out of step with the rest of the UK’. Well, we’re not — Scotland are out of step.”

Mr Hamilton said that he had several options: “We can take a decision to do nothing; we can take a decision to follow entirely what they’ve done in England and Wales or we can do something different in the way that Scotland has done.

“I’ve a fairly open mind in that regard and I think that the process we’re now in is objectively the right way to do it.”