The impact of the UK’s libel amendments on Irish law

Reform of the UK’s libel laws could have interesting consequences for Irish law. A cartoon from a story in this week’s Economist sets the scene:

Cartoon from the Economist, via their blog

A few extracts from the article accompanying the above cartoon:

Improving a reputation

England’s strict libel laws face a shake-up

Selling legal services to people in other countries is a lucrative business for Britain, but where the libel industry is concerned the trade is increasingly unwelcome. Foreigners can sue each other in English courts, even when publication has been almost wholly elsewhere. .. For foreigners and locals alike, mounting a defence is costly and tricky. …

The fear of libel suits may chill academic debate (big medical companies have sued several scientists for criticising their products). Outfits campaigning against beastly regimes abroad say they have had to defang their reports because of the threat of litigation.

Many want the law to be fairer, simpler, quicker and cheaper. … Anthony Lester QC … submitted a private member’s bill which would make most of the important changes that reformers have been seeking. One would replace the flimsy “fair comment” defence (which easily gets tied up in questions of fact) with a new one of “honest opinion”. … A second change would replace the “responsible publication” defence, which puts more weight on procedure than substance, with one of “public interest”. … A third part of the bill would make it harder for corporate bodies to sue. Moreover, any foreign claimant would have to show that he had suffered “substantial harm” in England. …

Lord Lester’s Bill is available here, analysed on Banksy’s blog and on Inforrm’s blog; a note of caution is sounded by Zoe Margolis whilst Paul Tweed is critical. Though important, the Bill is simply one part of the current conversation about libel reform in the UK. Another important part is the difference of opinion between two retired Law Lords (Hoffmann and Steyn).

Of course, be careful what you wish for. In Ireland, the Defamation Act, 2009 has reformed our libel laws. However, by the time it had worked its way through the Department of Justice and the Oireachtas, it was considerably watered down by departmental conservatism and political compromise; but now that it has been enacted, there is little political will for further reform. Lord Lester’s bill is carefully drafted; but if it suffers the same fate as the Irish bill did, it may not achieve its intended end, and the opportunity may be lost.

Finally, if Lester’s Bill, or some recognisable version of it, becomes law, then English law will have achieved a better balance in defamation law than Irish law does. It could also have profound effects on the future of Irish defamation law. The 2009 Act it is an incomplete reform: its new centerpiece defence of fair and reasonable publication is unworkable; its changes relating to damages are very timid; it confirms that corporations can sue for damages; and it does nothing to prevent libel tourism (the phenomenon of plaintiffs touring for the most congenial legal climate in which to take a libel action). Ireland would then be faced with the following choice. Dublin could replace London as the libel tourists‘ most favoured destination; or we could introduce similar amendments ourselves. It will be interesting to see how all this pans out.