Defamation Bill to pass within weeks

Fri, Jun 26, 2009, 01:00

THE BILL to reform Ireland’s libel laws is likely to be enacted within a fortnight, three years after it was published. The Defamation Bill was introduced by then minister for justice Michael McDowell in 2006 to repeal the existing legislation which dates from 1961.

The original government decision to approve the drafting of the new Bill was made as far back as June 2005.

The Bill’s passage through the Oireachtas has been stalled by developments in the intervening years, including the 2007 general election and two ministerial changes in justice where Mr McDowell was succeeded by Brian Lenihan and Dermot Ahern.

At one stage, some Fianna Fáil ministers insisted the Bill could not become law unless there was complementary privacy legislation. The latest amendment has come in recent weeks where Mr Ahern announced that the Bill would include provisions in relation to blasphemy. Mr Ahern said the Attorney General had advised him there was a constitutional obligation on him to do so, so as not to leave a legal void.

The second stage debate of the Bill took place in May 2008 but the remaining stages have been adjourned for over a year. However, the remaining stages of the Bill will be taken in the Dáil and Seanad over the next two weeks, with the Bill expected to complete its passage through the Oireachtas on July 10th, the last sitting day before the summer recess.

The new legislation puts defamation law on to a modern statutory footing. It will allow more speedy redress to plaintiffs, new forms of remedy, less complicated court procedures and new defences that will be open to the media.

One of its key provisions is to give statutory recognition to an independent press council. Prof John Horgan was appointed as Press Ombudsman in August 2007 and the Press Council formally began work in January 2008.

The Bill also introduces a new defence of fair and reasonable publication on a matter of public importance. Another reform is the abolition of the distinction between libel and slander, the latter which consists of words falsely uttered that damage the reputation of another, but which are not recorded or published.

For the first time, a publisher will be allowed to make an offer of apology without admitting liability. The defendant will also be allowed to lodge money in court in advance of proceedings, a procedure allowed in other forms of civil action.

Those who wish a timely apology rather than damages will be allowed to apply for declaratory orders and corrective orders to give them speedy redress.

A shorter statute of limitations of one year will also apply to defamation cases, although in exceptional cases, it can be extended to two years.