New bill to reform Irish defamation law is a step in the right direction

The fact that Minister for Justice Simon Harris is seeking Cabinet approval for draft legislation to overhaul Ireland’s defamation laws is a step in the right direction.

This means that judges will be required to make sure Ireland is the most appropriate country in which a particular case is to be heard, thus ensuring that that case is not being taken in Ireland purely on the basis of a potential award.

The Irish legal profession identified this as a problem several years ago, noting that the number of plaintiffs availing of the Irish courts had grown apace since 2013, when defamation laws in the UK were reformed to introduce a “serious harm” threshold.

Doing so meant those plaintiffs were looking to jurisdictions where that bar was set far lower, like Ireland.

It is regrettable that “serious harm” threshold has not been replicated in the draft legislation proposed by the Government; it means the new legal framework is not as strong as it might have been if that threshold, and a cap on damages, had both been introduced.

That said, the removal of juries is to be welcomed, as is the focus on including a new part in the legislation to tackle strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs).

The latter have been deployed by powerful vested interests all to deter genuine reporting and investigations for far too long. The freedom to investigate matters of public interest in detail and in depth is a cornerstone of any democracy, and curbing the freedom of expression through abusing the legal process is a curb on all freedoms.

The reforms announced this week serve as a good first step in preserving those freedoms for all, and not just those of the fourth estate.

Other measures are necessary, but this is at least a beginning.

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Andrew Naughtie

News reporter and author at @websalespromo