The General Scheme of the Defamation (Amendment) Bill has been published by Minster for Justice Simon Harris.
The bill will abolish juries in High Court defamation actions – a move that was slated by former High Court judge Bernard Barton who said at the Law Society that those who live in a democracy have a constitutional right to be tried by a jury of their peers.
This publication follows Government approval for priority drafting of the bill and referral for pre-legislative scrutiny to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice.
“Democracy cannot truly flourish without robust protection for the right of freedom of expression,” said Justice Minister Simon Harris today (28 March).
Right to good name
“Of course, this must always be carefully balanced with safeguarding the individual’s right to a good name and reputation, and the right of access to justice.
“I believe this legislation strikes the right balance between those rights,” he stated.
The General Scheme provides for:
- Abolition of juries in High Court defamation actions,
- Requiring solicitors to inform their clients of alternative-dispute-resolution options, including mediation, before issuing defamation proceedings,
- In a case of defamation, the correction must be published with equal prominence,
- The plaintiff or defendant may lodge an offer of settlement in court which will be considered in determining costs,
- Provisions to address the issue of ‘libel tourism’,
- Reforming the defence of ‘fair and reasonable publication’ on a matter of public interest to make it simpler and clearer,
- Reformed defence for live broadcasting where a contributor unexpectedly makes a defamatory comment,
- Measures to deal with strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPS),
- New statutory power for the Circuit Court, as well as the High Court, to make identification orders on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) less costly and more accessible, and to quickly block defamatory statements,
- Notice of complaint process, to make it easier, quicker, and cheaper to notify a digital publisher of online defamatory content, and request takedown.
Minister Harris added: “I want to ensure that our legislation addresses the challenges posed by an increasingly complex media landscape.
“This legislation provides for more efficient and less costly resolutions of defamation proceedings – as well as effectively tackling the new and specific problems raised by online defamation.
Libel lawyer Paul Tweed said recently that defamation matters have moved almost entirely online.
“The abolition of juries in High Court defamation actions will reduce the likelihood of disproportionate and unpredictable awards and high legal costs,” the minister stated.
“The bill also introduces provisions for preventing SLAPPs from exercising a ‘chilling effect’ on freedom of expression, and particularly, on investigative journalism or public debate on issues of public interest.
“Furthermore, the legislation will develop the use of alternative-dispute-resolution processes and solutions to streamline and reduce costs, and avoid defamation being perceived as a ‘rich man’s law’,” Minister Harris said.