The next steps in defamation reform, including the development of an anti-SLAPP mechanism, limp slowly closer – updated

Murphy, Costello, Harris, via Oireachtas website

The written answer to two Parliamentary Questions earlier this week (on Tuesday 21 February 2023) provides hope for imminent publication of the long awaited the General Scheme of a Defamation (Amendment) Bill, including the introduction of an anti-SLAPP mechanism.

Deputy Catherine Murphy TD (pictured above left) asked the Minister for Justice if his Department has been engaging with the European Parliament in relation to the proposed directive on Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation; and to detail what anti-SLAPP mechanisms his Department is considering for domestic legislation.

Deputy Patrick Costello TD (pictured above centre) asked the Minister for Justice the status of the proposed introduction of an anti-SLAPP mechanism in Irish law (details supplied), as committed to in May 2022; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

Minister for Justice Simon Harris TD (pictured above right) took both questions together and replied (links, and emphasis, added):

On 1st March 2022, the Government approved publication of the Report of the Review of the Defamation Act 2009 and the development of a General Scheme of a Defamation (Amendment) Bill on foot of the Report.

As the Deputy has noted, a key recommendation in the Report is to introduce a new ‘anti-SLAPP’ mechanism – referring to Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation – to allow a person to apply to court for summary dismissal of proceedings that he/she believes are a SLAPP. SLAPPs are legal proceedings, often without merit, whose main objective is not to succeed on the substantive issue claimed. Instead, they seek to deter debate or criticism by the defendant on matters of public interest, which is inconvenient to the plaintiff’s interest, by generating disproportionate costs and burdens of litigation to intimidate and obstruct them.

Preparation of the General Scheme of a Defamation (Amendment) Bill, to advance the reforms following the Review, is a priority for the Government and it is my intention to submit the General Scheme of the Bill to Government in the coming weeks for publication.

With regard to the European Commission Proposal for an EU Anti-SLAPP Directive, Ireland supports the proposal. As the Deputy will be aware, we have opted in to the adoption and application of the Proposal, in accordance with Protocol No. 21 annexed to the Treaty on European Union and to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, following a Government Decision and resolutions of the Dáil and Seanad to that effect. The proposal is currently under detailed consideration by officials of the Member States in a Council Working Group. Officials from my Department are actively participating in those discussions.

This is all very welcome; the next steps in defamation reform limp slowly closer; and I look forward to the fruits of the Department’s labours at domestic and EU level.

Leo Varadkar, via Oireachtas websiteUpdate (26 February 2023): The Sunday Independent, without referring to this, nevertheless reports that, for other reasons, defamation reforms are to be fast-tracked:

The Government is to prioritise reform of defamation law this year … according to senior government sources. The Sunday Independent can reveal Taoiseach Leo Varadkar [pictured right] has asked acting Justice Minister Simon Harris to fast-track the proposed reforms. … Last March, Justice Minister Helen McEntee received cabinet approval to prepare new legislation, which the Department of Justice is to prioritise this year.

If this process is fast-track, I’d hate to see the slow road. Nevertheless, it is encouraging that the issue remains near the top of the Government’s agenda. Let’s hope that reform “this year” is sooner in the year rather than later, and let’s see how fast the fast track really is.