Stormont Executive blocks free speech law

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A BRITISH law aimed at protecting freedom of expression will not extend to Northern Ireland after the Stormont Executive refused permission for Westminster to extend the reform to this part of the UK.

The Defamation Bill – which is the first reform of Britain’s libel laws since the 19th century – has been going through Westminster since 2010 and been supported by leading authors, scientists, lawyers and journalists.

The Bill is an attempt to end London’s status as the ‘libel capital of the world’ and would stop defamation actions being brought unless someone could demonstrate that serious harm had been done to them, while also stopping corporations bringing claims unless there has been substantial financial loss.

The Bill would also provide legal defences for responsible publication in the public interest and provide greater protection for website operators.

However, it has now emerged at Parliament that the Stormont Executive has refused permission for the law to extend to Northern Ireland. When asked why it had made that decision, Stormont’s Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) said that it had “considered” extending one clause in the new Bill to Northern Ireland but the Executive had been unable to come to a decision.

The issue came to light after Ulster peer Lord Rana asked the Government about the issue in the House of Lords and questioned the implications of two separate libel regimes for publications which circulate throughout the United Kingdom.

Responding for the Government Lord Newby said that as the law on defamation was devolved, the Government had consulted the Stormont Executive about the possibility of the Assembly passing a legislative consent motion – which allows Westminster to legislate on an issue on behalf of Stormont – but “in the event, no such extension was sought”.

Leading Belfast lawyer Brian Garrett said that he was troubled by the possibility of two substantively different libel laws throughout the United Kingdom. The former part-time judge told the News Letter: “I think that Northern Ireland either comes into line with a modern law or it will be very unfortunate. It would be unhelpful to scholarship, free and open journalism and all sorts of things of that kind.

“For that reason, I think that it is a high priority that this should be looked at and we should get on with it.

“Now clearly it should be done in line with what happens in Britain ... but it is a matter of freedom of expression, which should be improved.”

The former chairman of the Northern Ireland Labour Party said that there had been “such a poor legislative programme” at Stormont but it seemed that “it hasn’t been given any thought” by the Executive. He added: “That worries me.”

Mr Garrett added: “I suppose there might be those who say: The press should be held to account as fiercely as we can.

“But this – the current law – doesn’t hold the press to account. What we need is a decent law that gives decent access for the public to the courts and a charter for responsible journalism; this new law is not a charter for irresponsible journalism, quite the opposite, it actually signals the need for honest and reasonable opinions.”

Although the Defamation Bill has been strongly supported by newspapers across the UK, Lord Lester, the Liberal Democrat peer who initiated the law reform through a private member’s bill which was then adopted by the Government, has said of the proposed law change: “This is not about newspapers.

“This is about protecting the right to a good reputation and the rights to freedom of speech. The press are the eyes and ears of the public and if they are chilled the people who suffer are not the communicators but the public at large.”

Although the Defamation Bill only applies to England and Wales, consent was sought from both Scotland (which has long had a separate legal system) and Northern Ireland, where most laws are derived from Westminster, although some have been amended or never extended to the Province.

Last October the Scottish Parliament agreed for Westminster to extend the law to Scotland, leaving Northern Ireland as the only part of the UK excluded from the Bill.
In a statement, DFP said: “The origins of the Defamation Bill are to be found in a coalition promise to review the law on defamation in England and Wales.

“The extensive consultation was confined to that jurisdiction and the provisions in the Bill have obviously been developed against the backdrop of the civil justice system of England and Wales.

“The department considered the extension of clause 7 of the Bill (statutory privilege), which could have been applied in the Northern Ireland context.

“However, it was unable to secure an Executive decision within the required timescale and a legislative consent motion in respect of that clause was not, therefore, pursued.”