A public consultation about reforming Northern Ireland’s libel laws to protect freedom of speech has revealed overwhelming support — with only “two or three” lawyers opposed to the move.
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, who wants to use a Stormont bill to bring Northern Ireland back into line with the rest of the UK’s libel laws, said that more than 90 per cent of those who responded supported such a move.
The decision to exclude the Province from the Defamation Act was taken by the DUP, not the Executive, and was only made public when revealed by the News Letter in March.
Authors, lawyers, journalists and free speech campaigners have urged MLAs to consider reforms which would explicitly defend public interest journalism and academic research.
But First Minister Peter Robinson and some libel lawyers have dismissed warnings that the Province in being left behind. Mr Robinson said claims the old laws stifled freedom of speech were “absurd”.
Yesterday, Mr Nesbitt revealed that between 90 and 99 per cent of respondents agreed with key aspects of the Defamation Act.
The only part of the act which attracted less support — though still a very clear majority — was the abolition of jury trials for libel actions.
Mr Nesbitt said: “My consultation indicates only one per cent of the population agrees with Sammy Wilson in thinking the laws of defamation are as good as they can be.”
He added: “Apart from two or three lawyers, I am unaware of any real opposition to reform.”
However, other lawyers have strongly backed reform.
The former journalist said that he wanted to see “robust debate among scientists and academics, without an unreasonable threat of legal action for expressing an honestly held and researched opinion”.
Mr Nesbitt said: “This is about protecting freedom of speech in Northern Ireland. This is particularly important to us, because our current system of government means we do not have a second chamber, like the Lords in London, who scrutinise and revise legislation coming out of the Commons.
“Nor do we have an official Opposition, a role performed to a large extent by the media, many members of whom tell me they face regular threats of legal action for defamation from a particular local political party.”
Mr Nesbitt said he had received responses from medics who believe that big firms could use the old libel laws to sue them and “protect their interests”. He also said that he had responses from academics, economists, journalists and Westminster politicians.
Bigger response in NI than in GB
More people responded to Mike Nesbitt’s consultation on Northern Ireland’s libel laws than responded to the Ministry of Justice’s consultation on the UK-wide laws, it has emerged.
The nationwide consultation attracted 204 responses, as opposed to 209 questionnaire responses to Mr Nesbitt’s exercise and “several dozen individually tailored submissions”.
Mike Harris, of the Libel Reform Campaign, said the “incredible” response showed “clear demand for a bill to reform the law”.
Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, said the response “is an overwhelming indication of public support for libel reform”.
UUP leader’s bill put on hold by Hamilton
Although Mike Nesbitt has begun the process of bringing forward a private member’s bill about the issue, he is unable to continue that process for now because the DUP Finance Minister, Simon Hamilton, has referred the matter to the Law Commission.
The commission will over the coming months undertake its own consultation and advise the minister as to whether a new law is necessary,
Last month, the commission’s chief executive, Judena Goldring, said that its “initial advice” to Mr Hamilton was that there should be a full public consultation on the issue “so that the people of Northern Ireland have a good opportunity to contribute to that discussion.”
The commission will examine whether key parts of the Defamation Act — including the introduction of a higher threshold which has to be passed before a libel action can be taken and a defence of matters in the public interest — should be incorporated into Northern Ireland’s laws.