Defamation, opinion, and the presumption of innocence
“Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”
William Blackstone Commentaries on the Laws of England (vol 4) 358
With very little coverage (Day 1: Irish Times here and here | RTÉ; Day 2: Irish Times), a case which had the capacity to make a fundamental change to Irish defamation law was decided in the Supreme Court at the end of last week. Two members of the Birmingham Six have taken defamation proceedings against leading English human rights barrister Sir Louis Blom–Cooper QC (pictured left). Blom-Cooper sought to have the case struck out on the basis that his expression of opinion was constitutionally protected. However, the Supreme Court allowed the case to proceed, and (if the press reports are accurate) ducked the constitutional question, at least for the time being.
The story begins with the presumption of innocence, embodied in the quote from Blackstone, above. In Woolmington v DPP  AC 462,  UKHL 1 (23 May 1935) Viscount Sankey held that “the presumption of innocence in a criminal case is strong”, and emphasised, that throughout the web of the criminal law,
… one golden thread is always to be seen that it is the duty of the prosecution to prove the prisoner’s guilt … If, at the end of and on the whole of the case, there is a reasonable doubt, created by the evidence given by either the prosecution or the prisoner, as to whether the prisoner killed the deceased with a malicious intention, the prosecution has not made out the case and the prisoner is entitled to an acquittal.