Attorney General Máire Whelan's decision in February to refer part of the legal defamation regime to the Law Reform Commission was most welcome. It was an acknowledgment that aspects of the law as they apply to court reporters, notably, potentially heavy penalties for inadvertent errors in the reporting of cases, may have a chilling effect on the performance of a vital public function of the press, ensuring the conduct of trials in public.
In truth, however, a far wider review of the Defamation Act 2009 and of the defamation regime it regulates in practice is not only called for but legally required and overdue under the Act itself. And for similar reasons: to protect the ability of the press to perform its central function of exposing wrongdoing. The level of awards, not least, for example, the €1.25 million awarded in the Monica Leech case against Independent Newspapers, has cast a chill on reporting the activities of the politicians and the rich and famous. Fear of such awards has also created a virtual industry for lawyers in securing out of court settlements that now run regularly into tens of thousands of euros for often trivial or accidental mistakes by the press.
It was right that the courts should seek to protect the good name of Ms Leech, but the level of her award, and others, is completely disproportionate to the damage inflicted, and many multiples of what would be awarded for the most serious of physical injuries. And that when the Supreme Court, which substantially reduced the original award, accepted that the case was not at the most serious end of the scale of defamation. The award level in this case is now on appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, which has accepted in recent years that excessive awards undermine the right to free speech and a free press.
Ireland’s defamation regime is probably the most oppressive in Europe, a blot on our human rights record. On World Press Freedom Day, this paper joins the rest of Ireland’s press in appealing to the incoming government for an overdue radical review of the defamation legislation and the culture it spawns.