Department of Justice to study ‘significant’ human rights ruling on defamation law

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan

The Department of Justice has said it will carefully study a “significant” ruling on the compatibility of Ireland’s former defamation law with the European Convention on Human Rights.

The European Court of Human Rights yesterday ruled in favour of Independent Newspapers, who argued that the Defamation Act 1961 was not compatible with their rights to freedom of expression.

The challenge was lodged in May 2015 in respect of an award of damages made by the High Court in June 2009 and reduced by the Supreme Court on appeal in December 2014.

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan, responding to the ruling, said it is “important to bear in mind” that the judgment refers to Irish law as it stood before the commencement of the Defamation Act 2009.

Mr Flanagan added: “The Court upholds the choice of the use of juries to decide on damages in defamation cases, as fully compatible with the Convention. It finds that the judge should give directions to the jury to guide it in its assessment of damages and protect against disproportionate awards, and that an appeal court which is substituting a different amount for the jury award should give relevant and detailed reasons for the amount awarded, particularly when the award is a very large one.

“The judgment expressly notes and welcomes the fact that Irish law was subsequently changed, by section 31 of the Defamation Act 2009, which introduced a new provision for the High Court judge to give directions to the jury to guide it in assessing an appropriate amount of damages.

“The judgment is nevertheless, of course, a significant one, in light of the review of the Defamation Act 2009, and its operation in practice, which is currently under way in my Department. I and my officials are studying it carefully, and it will be taken fully into account in the review.

“The review was launched last November with the aim of assessing whether the policy objectives of the Defamation Act 2009 remain valid, and whether the provisions of the Act remain appropriate for securing those objectives. From the outset, the central focus of our review has been to ensure that our law strikes the correct balance between the right to freedom of expression in a democratic society, and an individual’s right to protect their good name and privacy against unfounded attack – rights which are protected both under our Constitution and under the European Convention on Human Rights.”