The right to freedom of speech is fundamental to our constitution. In April 2013, the UK Government passed The Defamation Act, with cross-party support at Westminster, to update our statutory rights to freedom of speech, balanced by the need to protect the reputation of those targeted by unjustified attacks.
I am seeking to introduce a Private Members’ Bill to the Northern Ireland Assembly, broadly in line with the changes contained in the 2013 Defamation Act, passed by the UK Government in April 2013.
Purpose of the Bill
The purpose will be to re-balance the demands of promoting freedom of speech and offering protection against unjustified comment, taking into account developments since the last laws were enacted.
Case for Change The structures of the devolved government in Northern Ireland do not make provision for an Official Opposition, nor for a second House (such as the House of Lords) at Stormont. This puts an even greater emphasis than normal in a democracy on the role of the media to scrutinise the work of the Northern Ireland Executive. Failure to introduce the main provisions of the 2013 Defamation Act will unnecessarily and substantially weaken the media's ability to perform the key function undertaken by responsible investigative journalism.
If we do not change: • Media outlets will either have to consider publishing editions of their newspapers, programmes and websites that are sanitised to meet Northern Ireland's specific defamation laws, or not publish in NI at all;
• Our two Universities will struggle to attract the best researchers, as scientists and academics will be put off by the fact that Northern Ireland does not offer the same protection for peer-reviewed analysis as is afforded by the 2013 Act;
• The Executive's drive to establish Northern Ireland as a global centre of excellence for the new Creative Industries will be damaged;
• There is a real possibility the rich and powerful will use Northern Ireland as the equivalent of a "Tax Haven", such individuals becoming what is commonly referred to as "libel tourists".
This Consultation will seek views on matters including:
• A new requirement that a statement must have caused substantial harm in order for it to be considered as defamatory;
• A statutory defence of truth (replacing the current common law defence of justification);
• A new statutory defence of responsible publication on matters of public interest;
• A statutory defence of honest opinion (replacing the current common law defence of fair/honest comment) ;
• The introduction of a single publication rule to prevent an action being brought in relation to publication of the same material by the same publisher after a one year limitation period has passed;
• Action to address libel tourism by ensuring a court will not accept jurisdiction unless satisfied that Northern Ireland is clearly the most appropriate place to bring an action against someone who is not domiciled in the UK or an EU Member State;
• The removal of the presumption in favour of jury trial, so that the judge would have the discretion to order jury trial where it is in the interests of justice;
• A review of where responsibility should lie for publication on the Internet, with specific reference to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who may be viewed as secondary publishers.
• Making it easier and less expensive to take legal action when you have been defamed;
• Making it harder for the rich and influential to chill free speech;
• Introducing measures to exclude trivial claims;
• Protecting the right of scientists and academics to engage in robust debate;
• Protecting the right of journalists to conduct responsible and necessary investigations;
• Protecting the work of Non-Governmental Organisations;
• Taking into account the impact of the world wide use of the Internet.