NI: Unreformed NI libel laws must not ‘undermine’ Defamation Act 2013

Robert Sharp, communications manager at English PEN

Unreformed libel laws in Northern Ireland cannot be allowed to “undermine” the reforms introduced by the Defamation Act 2013 in England and Wales, a spokesperson for English PEN has told Irish Legal News.

Dublin and Belfast have reportedly usurped London’s “libel capital” reputation since the reformed law was introduced in England and Wales, sparking calls from English PEN for the law in this area to be harmonised across the UK’s legal jurisdictions.

Robert Sharp, communications manager at English PEN, told ILN that the Defamation Act 2013 is “a very strong blueprint for reform in other jurisdictions”.

Last week, over 100 authors called for reform of antiquated defamation laws in Scotland, prompting a dialogue about recent reforms south of the border and how Scotland’s laws have affected them.

Mr Sharp said he knew of an English university press ready to publish a book on corruption in Russia but which was advised to remain as cautious as before the 2013 Act because of the prevailing defamation regimes elsewhere in the UK.

Reform looks remote in Northern Ireland, with some lawyers actively welcoming libel tourists. This is compounded by the fact the Northern Ireland Law Commission had its funding drastically cut by Justice Minister David Ford in April, meaning only “essential law reform” will continue – a real threat to defamation reform.

Mr Sharp said: “The law of Northern Ireland is even more unreformed than in Scotland – a couple of claimant lawyers have actually been touting for business, saying ‘come and sue in Belfast because you can’t in England’.”

He added: “In contrast to the Scottish Law Commission, the NILC has faced cost-saving measures. They had launched a consultation themselves which took the Defamation Act 2013 as its starting point but there is still a question of when that will report and what its recommendations will be. There is a deep concern there because of the threat to the commission itself.

“A lot of the libel cases we know about concern the former paramilitary action over there so you get people suing because some historian has inaccurately reported their paramilitary activity.

“One of the most striking speeches in the Defamation Act debates was Paul Bew, Lord Bew. He confessed his own book had significant historical omissions because of libel threats.

“In the Northern Ireland context you can’t be glossing over issues or sweeping people’s history under the carpet because of privatised censorship.”

In Scotland, at least, prospects for reform look more positive with Lord Pentland, chairman of the Scottish Law Commission welcoming the signatories’ support for reform last week.

Lord Pentland said: “There has been important recent reform in England and Wales with the Defamation Act 2013 and there is a need to consider in detail the extent to which that serves as a suitable model for reform of Scots law.”

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