Years after the law of defamation was reformed in England and Wales, the possibility of similar reform in Northern Ireland edged a step closer yesterday.
A report that summarises responses to a public consultation on reform and suggests reform models has been handed to Stormont’s Finance Minister, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir.
The 2013 Defamation Act that related to England and Wales made a number of changes there, the principal one being that a claimant has to show that they have suffered “serious harm” before bringing an action. This is an essential reform in Northern Ireland.
The Province has indulged legal complaints, often from politicians, that would be considered part of the rough and tumble of politics at Westminster. But here, such cases are often settled because of the fear that costs will spiral in a trial and that a jury might find in favour of the complainant.
But while some politicians have been indulged in their libel threats, they are far from the only people who take advantage of our current system. Northern Ireland is the part of the UK where – shamefully – a jury found against a blunt Irish News restaurant review. That is a case that was never entirely rectified, as it should have been, in the newspaper’s favour. Rather it was sent to a retrial that never in fact happened.
It is intolerable that Northern Ireland should be allowed to be a legal forum for the thin-skinned.
But the position with regard to defamation law has potentially become much more serious since the reforms of 2013. That act came into being amid concerns that London was becoming an international libel capital for wealthy litigants intent on silencing critics, some of whom were respected scientists.
Now the discrepancy between Northern Ireland and Great Britain makes the Province attractive as a potential forum for such libel bullies. This must not be allowed to stand, and Stormont should enact reforms that are close in detail to those already in place in England and Wales.