Top law firm lobbies Government for defamation reform

A&L Goodbody is seeking the removal of juries from defamation actions

A&L Goodbody said the Government had identified the need for defamation reform in its programme for Government. Photograph: iStock

A&L Goodbody said the Government had identified the need for defamation reform in its programme for Government. Photograph: iStock

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One of the State’s top law firms has lobbied the Minister for Justice to remove juries from defamation cases in an effort to prevent what it calls “excessive” damages awards.

A&L Goodbody, the biggest law firm in the Republic by solicitor numbers, contacted the Minister, Helen McEntee, earlier this year seeking an amendment of the key piece of legislation which underpins the State’s defamation regime.

The lobbying activity followed an article written by A&L partner Kenan Furlong, which appeared in online publication the Currency and on the company’s website.

Mr Furlong noted two cases in particular where large jury awards in defamation actions were subsequently reduced on appeal.

Need for reform

A&L said the Government had identified the need for defamation reform in its programme for Government. “In my view, the most pressing and effective reform of our defamation system would be to remove juries,” Mr Furlong said in response to a query from The Irish Times.

“There is a growing evidence that juries award disproportionate damages in defamation cases. These excessive awards in turn cause settlement inflation. Jury trials also take much longer than other hearings, inflating costs and thereby further inflating settlements,” he added.

Mr Furlong said the high awards and costs had had a “chilling effect” on what was already a “cash-strapped mainstream media”. It also curtails access to justice for the many individuals and business who cannot afford the risk of an “unpredictable” jury trial.

“There is no evidence to suggest that the role performed by juries could not be performed as, if not more, effectively and efficiently by a judge, particularly a specialist judge familiar with the many internet-based communications platforms.

“Let judges vindicate the rights of those who have been defamed. Let the media have the right to report freely on public interest stories uninhibited by the spectre of a jury trial,” Mr Furlong said.