Plan to reform Northern Ireland’s outdated libel laws makes another small step in the right direction

News Letter editorial of Wednesday September 15 2021:

Wednesday, 15th September 2021, 10:41 am
Updated Saturday, 18th September 2021, 2:39 pm
News Letter editorial

The former Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt MLA is one of a number of public figures who have shown an admirable determination to reform Northern Ireland’s libel laws.

Free speech has been a balancing act since the long before the printing presses, between the need for an open flow of information, and the need for some things to remain private, and for there to be sanction against things that are said or written that are utterly wrong.

Over the centuries that has evolved into libel laws in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

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Such legislation is essential so that people can protect their reputation from falsehood.

However, in the British Isles the balance had in recent decades swung far too far in favour of people or organisations who wanted to sue. The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have not rectified this imbalance, which has a chilling effect on free speech. Newspapers, for example, can be fearful of printing stories about hardened criminals, which — if one element is wrong – could lead to a disastrous defeat in the libel courts, racking up both damages and huge legal costs.

It is approaching a decade since England and Wales reformed their libel laws to make it harder for people to bring vexatious or poorly founded defamation actions. The UK had been seen as an easy venue in which to sue. The DUP opposed extending the reform to NI, and lack of change led to fears that the Province would become a venue for libel tourism.

Jim Allister QC was right to say yesterday that that had not come to pass, but that does not mean there is not a problem. The costs of defending a libel case is so great that media outlets can settle cases which they ought to win.

Some very bad people can benefit from this caution on the part of newspapers, including terrorists or terrorist apologists, who are among the quickest to sue if they are described as the terrorists or terrorist apologists that they are.

It is good to see that the DUP now seems open to reform and that Mr Nesbitt’s bill has passed an early hurdle.

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