‘No sensible reason’ to block libel reform

Tory peer Lord  Lexden
Tory peer Lord Lexden

A former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland has urged Stormont to “briskly” reform Northern Ireland’s archaic libel laws in line with Britain’s.

Lord Carswell, a retired Law Lord, made his views public during a House of Lords debate on Tuesday evening.

Referring to the Stormont decision — which was taken by the DUP — to block reform of the law on free speech, Lord Carswell told peers: “I cannot understand, and I can think of no sensible or acceptable reason, why the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly have failed to adopt the Act and put it into effect.”

He said that he would “very much like to see the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly adopting this without delay. It is time it was done briskly and expeditiously.”

Tory peer Lord Lexden, who raised the issue, highlighted his long-standing love of Northern Ireland and said: “The new, widely welcomed libel law has perhaps been more carefully thought through than any other piece of legislation in recent years.”

He added: “In this immensely important area of our law, which directly affects so many people and so many publications, Northern Ireland has been split from England and Wales. The Union of our country has been weakened. A common jurisdiction has been divided into two — not after careful consideration of the effects of such a rupture, but without any inquiry whatever into the consequences.”

Libel expert and Lib Dem peer Lord Lester said that “free speech is the lifeblood of democracy”, as well as being a “safety valve” whereby the press act as “public watchdogs” to act “as a brake on the abuse of power by public officials, by exposing errors in governance and in the administration of justice”.

DUP peer Lord Browne said that “it is only right and proper that the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly be allowed time” to consider the issue.

But Lord Pannick said: “The Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly have had ample time to act and have done nothing.”

Lord Black, an executive at the Daily Telegraph’s publisher, said Stormont had opted out of the Royal Charter on press self-regulation without explanation, adding: “A pattern of behaviour is appearing of a pick-and-choose approach to fundamental constitutional issues.”

Viscount Colville, a producer at the BBC, praised “courageous” journalists at the Spotlight programme, adding: “The BBC is one of the few organisations big enough to defy the threats of those who want to chill free speech and stop investigative journalism.”