Paul Tweed leads criticism of recommendations for defamation law reform
Belfast lawyer Paul Tweed of Johnsons Solicitors has told Irish Legal News that recommendations to extend British defamation law reforms, including the “serious harm” test, to Northern Ireland would cause legal costs to “go through the roof”.
Dr Andrew Scott of the London School of Economics conducted a review of the law on behalf of the Northern Ireland Law Commission following renewed calls for the Defamation Act 2013, which reformed defamation laws in England, Scotland and Wales, to be extended to Northern Ireland.
Among other provisions, the Defamation Act 2013 introduced a requirement for claimants to show actual or probable serious harm before suing for defamation in England and Wales.
His report summarises the responses to the Law Commission’s public consultation and recommends that, to a significant extent, measures equivalent to the provisions of the Defamation Act 2013 should be introduced into Northern Irish law.
Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir said the report will “help to inform the policy development process as we seek to ensure that a fair balance is maintained between the right to free speech and the right of the ordinary man and woman in the street to protect their reputation”.
However, Mr Tweed, who has been involved in high-profile defamation actions in the UK and Ireland, said Dr Scott’s proposed reforms would complicate the “perfectly adequate defamation law in place”.
Mr Tweed told Irish Legal News: “In my opinion it will increase costs dramatically, and could end up putting out the likes of some of the smaller publications that do get bogged down in litigation.
“You’ll be aware in England that the 2013 Act has run into the same problem where we have costs, we’re talking about costs of £300,000 plus, just to hear an interrogatory application on the serious harm rule.”
He added: “It suits lawyers - I act for newspapers and claimants, so if that’s the case, so be it. I personally am totally against any of the recommendations being implemented.”
Mr Tweed also said a High Court committee is due to publicly disagree with Dr Scott’s recommendations.
He told ILN: “I sit on two High Court defamation committees and one of them is due to report shortly. Andrew Scott’s report is certainly not in sync with the report that’s about to come out from the High Court committee, which is made up of members of both the defence side, acting for newspapers, and the plaintiff side.”