NI: Defamation laws could be brought in line with England by next year

NI: Defamation laws could be brought in line with England by next year

Mike Nesbitt

Northern Ireland’s defamation laws could be brought in line with England and Wales before the end of the current Assembly mandate, former Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Mike Nesbitt has said.

Mr Nesbitt yesterday introduced a private member’s bill in the Northern Ireland Assembly which would replicate the reforms in the Defamation Act 2013, which overhauled the defamation regime in England and Wales.

The proposed reforms include the introduction of a “serious harm” test requiring claimants to show they have suffered serious harm before suing for defamation and new statutory defences of truth and honest opinion to replace the common law defences of justification and fair comment.

Mr Nesbitt previously introduced a private member’s bill on defamation reform which fell when the Assembly collapsed in January 2017. It was effectively endorsed by Dr Andrew Scott of the LSE in a report for the Department of Finance in 2016.

Speaking to Irish Legal News this morning, Mr Nesbitt said his reintroduction of the bill was delayed due to “a difficulty with clause five, which is about the operators of websites, because internet, under telecommunications, is a reserved matter”.

However, he contacted Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis and successfully secured consent “a few weeks ago” for the Assembly to legislate on the matter, allowing the Speaker to declare the bill competent.

Mr Nesbitt said: “I know that the Department of Finance have been looking at [defamation law reform], but it was made clear to me by the current minister, Conor Murphy, that they would not be bringing legislation in this mandate, so I have decided to press on.”

He added that he would be seeking to have the second reading of the bill “very early after summer recess”, allowing enough time for it to be considered by MLAs and still make it into law before the end of the mandate.

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