Proposal on extra legal protections for court reporters rejected

Law Reform Commission says such a measure could reduce standard of reporting on cases

The Law Reform Commission (LRC) has declined to recommend additional legal protections for journalists who report on court proceedings.

The Law Reform Commission (LRC) has declined to recommend additional legal protections for journalists who report on court proceedings.

 

The Law Reform Commission (LRC) has decided not to recommend the provision of additional legal protections for journalists who report on court proceedings.

In a report published on Tuesday, the commission rejects a suggestion that journalists and media outlets should be protected from legal action if their reports are defamatory due to a genuine error.

The LRC began examining the issue in 2016 following a request from then attorney general and now Court of Appeal judge Ms Justice Máire Whelan, who raised concerns about the potential “chilling” impact of Ireland’s defamation laws on the level and quality of court reporting.

It is understood that Ms Justice Whelan’s comments were prompted by two cases which occurred around that time.

In one case, a District Court judge threatened legal proceedings against a news agency for mistakenly attributing a legal decision to the judge, which was later overturned by the Court of Appeal. The decision had in fact been reached by another judge.

The judge’s lawyers stated the error was “seriously defamatory” of their client and amounted to “a serious and unjustified attack” on the judge’s integrity before asking for proposals for compensation. It is understood the news agency settled the case for more than €10,000 after it was informed the costs of defending it in court could well exceed this figure.

Solicitor

In another case, which occurred shortly before Ms Whelan’s remarks, TV3 was ordered to pay €140,000 (reduced to €36,000 on appeal) in compensation to a solicitor it was found to have defamed.

The station had featured footage of the solicitor walking into court while a voiceover described the criminal case against his client, another solicitor, convicted of theft and forgery involving €52 million.

The LRC stated that there should be no qualified privilege for reports which fall below the “fair and accurate” standard, even if those reports were compiled without malice. It stated it was concerned such a provision would risk “a reduction in the standard and quality of reporting of court proceedings.”

The commission also declined to recommend that those seeking to initiate defamation proceedings in relation to a court report should be required to seek permission of the court first. Such a provision could restrict an individual’s right to access justice, it said.

However, the LRC did recommend the Defamation Act 2009 be amended to include criteria for a “fair and accurate” court report including that slight inaccuracies or omissions should be immaterial if the report in general is accurate.

Currently journalists who fairly and accurately report what is said in court are protected from defamation proceedings even if those statements would be defamatory in another setting. The LRC stated this protection should apply not just to traditional journalists but also to “bloggers, social media users and citizen journalists”.

In reaching its conclusions, the LRC acknowledged submissions from those stating court reporting, especially on a regional level, is imperilled due to the high costs of defamation actions.