A Stormont report which recommends significant reform of Northern Ireland’s libel laws now puts the ball in Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir’s court, the leader of the Opposition has said.
Four years ago, the DUP secretly blocked Northern Ireland from being part of UK-wide libel law reform, a decision which remained hidden even from some Executive ministers until being revealed by the News Letter in 2013.
But on Tuesday a report into the matter – which had been commissioned by DUP minister Simon Hamilton – recommended that that decision be overturned, either by Northern Ireland copying the entire Westminster legislation or by making slight changes to it.
The report by legal academic Dr Andrew Scott included text for two draft bills which could be rapidly introduced in the Assembly if the Executive agrees to that happening.
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt – who has championed the issue at Stormont and attempted to introduce a private member’s bill of his own – said that Dr Scott’s report was a decisive development.
Mr Nesbitt said: “The Defamation Act passed by Parliament in 2013 was scrutinised and debated on the basis that the legislation would apply to Northern Ireland.
“Unfortunately, the then local Finance and Personnel Minister, Sammy Wilson, dismissed the idea of extending the new law to Northern Ireland, without even consulting his Executive colleagues or even informing the Assembly. “
Mr Nesbitt said that Mr Hamilton’s decision to ask for a report into the matter “was seen by many as an attempt to undermine and interrupt my efforts [to introduce a private member’s bill].”
He added: “I am glad that almost two years after first ordering the review, the report has now been published and that it strongly recommends that many of the measures in the Defamation Act should be emulated here in Northern Ireland. The ball in now in Minister Ó Muilleoir’s court. In addition to the clear findings of this report, repeated public consultations have demonstrated a strong desire to change our outdated and ineffective libel laws.
“The minister, and any of those local politicians who may be afraid to allow freedom of speech, no longer have any valid excuse to cling to the laws of the past.”
Speaking in the Assembly last year, the then Finance Minister Arlene Foster said that she had “no preconceptions about what should or should not be done” with regard to the defamation laws and stressed the independence of Dr Scott’s review.
However, she went on to say: “If there are changes to be made, we will move into policy development to consider how we make them. I do not think that it would be right to follow the Defamation Act 2013 slavishly.”
A leading heart doctor who has said that the old UK libel law – which Stormont has chosen to retain – contributed to the deaths of patients has welcomed Dr Scott’s report.
Dr Peter Wilmshurst, a cardiologist who was sued for his criticisms of a medical device, personally lost tens of thousands of pounds in the legal action and has visited Northern Ireland to speak in favour of libel law reform.
Dr Wilmshurst said he was “extremely pleased” to hear of the report and said: “I hope that the draft bills containing the recommendations will be passed quickly by the Assembly.”