The legal body responsible for reviewing legislation and advising the Executive has recommended a public consultation on Northern Ireland’s libel laws.
The Northern Ireland Law Commission has given the advice to the DUP Finance Minister, Simon Hamilton, after he asked it to look into the issue.
The commission’s chief executive, Judena Goldring, said that the body was now waiting for formal clearance from Justice Minister David Ford and others before it begins work on the project in the new year and submits a report to Executive ministers.
In February, this newspaper revealed that an unannounced decision by former DUP Finance Minister Sammy Wilson blocked the Province from significant reforms of the British libel laws which have strengthened the protections on free speech for journalists, academics, internet users and others.
The move has been opposed by some leading libel lawyers who claim that it will make it too difficult for ordinary people to sue publishers.
Ms Goldring told the News Letter: “Our initial advice to the finance minister is that there ought to be a full public consultation on the issues here so that the people of Northern Ireland have a good opportunity to contribute to that discussion.”
Ms Goldring said that the commission was “extremely interested” in the project.
“Once formal approval is forthcoming we will expect to have a full public consultation on the issues here so that the people of Northern Ireland will have a good opportunity to contribute to that discussion and we can have a proper public debate on the issues.”
Ms Goldring stressed that the commission wanted to see a balanced debate, not a “skewed” one. “We will do the research and arguments on all sides and put that, in an unbiased way, into the public domain in the form of a consultation paper.”
She said that the commission was “fortunate” that there had already been a major consultation on the issue in England and Wales and the defamation law in Northern Ireland is “very similar” so the commission had “the benefit of all the responses back to that”.
Ms Goldring said that the commission would then put its recommendations to the Finance Minister.
In recent months Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has been consulting on a private member’s bill to bring the Province back into line with the rest of the UK. Mr Nesbitt recently met the commission and has agreed to give it his consultation responses.
Ms Goldring praised his handling of the issue, saying that he had been “very responsible and helpful” in his dealings with the commission.
“He has done a lot of work in bringing this issue to the fore and taking the very responsible position that he has adopted in letting official consultation brought forward by the Law Commission to take it on.”