Defamation bill goes before Seanad


A reform of the State's defamation legislation to bring it into line with other countries was long overdue, the Minister for Justice Michael McDowell told the Seanad today.

As he presented the long-awaited Defamation Bill to Senators for debate, Mr McDowell said it was influenced by an in-depth 1991 report from the Law Reform Commission which contained over 50 proposals for reform.

"The current legislation in relation to defamation is deficient in a number of regards," he said.

"The existing legislation lags behind the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights and developments in jurisprudence in other jurisdictions as regards the appropriate balance between freedom of expression and protection of one's good name.

"The new provisions introduced in the Bill will give plaintiffs a better sense of their rights under the law. For those interested in obtaining speedy redress when they have been defamed, new forms of remedy will, in future, be available to them.

The new legislation will also provide greater clarity for publishers and will facilitate responsible publishers in avoiding defamatory statements as well as providing guidance as to the limits of the various defences which are open to them."

Mr McDowell said the defects in the current legislation include that an apology cannot be made to an aggrieved person without it being taken as an admission of liability and there is an insufficient range of remedies other than damages available.

Under the new legislation, the publication of an apology will no longer be an admission of liability.

The Bill makes it more difficult for individuals to sue without good reason and abolishes the torts of libel and slander which are replaced with defamation.

It allows the media the defence against being sued of fair and reasonable publication on a matter of public importance.

"This new defence takes cognisance of jurisprudence at European Court of Human Rights level and particularly from certain decisions in the UK courts," Mr McDowell said.

Mr McDowell said it should be clear that this new defence was designed to facilitate responsible journalism. Under the Bill, the judge in a High Court defamation action will direct the jury in relation to the matter of damages and sets out factors to be taken into account.

The Irish Press Industry Steering Committee yesterday published its proposals for an independent Press Council, Press Ombudsman and a Code of Practice.

These were designed to give Irish citizens the backing to tackle defamation in the print media. The body said it would resolve complains quickly and amicably while defending the freedom of the press and the right of the public to be informed.

The setting up of the press council, which was proposed by the Legal Advisory Group on Defamation, is supported in the Bill.

"The code must provide an added protection to citizens' privacy and dignity from media intrusion and violation. Nothing less will be expected or acceptable by the public. The proposed press ombudsman service must be properly empowered to deal with complaints from those affected by breaches of standards as set out in such a code," Mr McDowell said.

"A code of practice to which the print media organisations can subscribe and adhere is a critical element of independent regulation of the press."