Kate Hoey: Our libel laws in Northern Ireland silence the press, and need to be reformed

Later today Lord Lexden will raise in Parliament the issue of libel law reform in Northern Ireland, writes KATE HOEY.

Monday, 11th January 2021, 7:26 am
Updated Monday, 11th January 2021, 1:50 pm
Baroness Hoey

Back in 2013 a Bill was introduced to replace the ancient,costly and over complicated defamation laws which damaged freedom of speech and academic and scientific debate and restricted investigative journalism.

It was a Bill that had nearly three years of consultation,pre-legislative scrutiny, widespread support and was drafted to cover England,Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland had its own law ).

The new law provided effective protection for free speech both on and off line by discouraging trivial and unproven actions, clarified and simplified defences for those accused of libel and tackled libel tourism from all over the world whilst implementing proper remedies for those who had been genuinely wronged.

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Sadly the Executive chose not to take forward the legislative consent motion needed to bring the new Act into law here.

Mike Nesbitt MLA then made a valiant attempt to draft and introduce a Bill in the Assembly which was stymied with a promise to commission research subsequently ignored.

There has never been any proper account of why the Bill was not enacted.

Since then there has been a growing campaign to bring it in. T

housands signed up to the campaign which was supported by a wide group of journalists.

It is only controversial with the tiny number of claimant lawyers who are profiting from the province now being the libel capital of Europe.

Local newspapers in Northern Ireland have a crucial role to play in getting to the truth and upholding democracy.

But increasingly they can no longer afford to bear the costs of an expensive and vindictive libel regime.

Investigative journalism suffers as newspapers step back from publishing for fear of being put out of business.

Unfortunately some political parties and individual politicians have used this as a method of stopping the truth coming out making a quick settlement before going to court.

Statistics from the Northern Ireland Law Commission show there were six times as many claims for defamation per capital in Northern Ireland as in England and Wales.

Northern Ireland needs more democracy and transparency, a lively and investigative press, scrutiny of public bodies and elected representatives without fear or favour. For lazy or self- regarding politicians our outdated libel laws have become a means of silencing the press.

This has to change either through Westminster or with a quick Bill processed by the Assembly.

We may not always like what we read in our local papers but unless we extend the Defamation Act to Northern Ireland we risk not just a muzzled press but fewer newspapers to be muzzled

• Baroness Hoey (Kate Hoey) was Labour MP for Vauxhall from 1989 to 2019

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