English PEN and the Society of Authors (SoA) have welcomed a new report on defamation law in Northern Ireland recommending that Northern Irish law should emulate that of England and Wales.
Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, hailed it an "excellent report" and said the "overwhelming support" shown for libel reform showed just "how overdue a rewrite of the law is". Meanwhile SoA chief executive Nicola Solomon said it was "an important first step towards parity in this area of law for our members across the UK", adding: "The right to freedom of expression should never be limited by geography".
Northern Ireland's libel laws have not changed in the last three years, despite those in England and Wales modernising following the introduction of the hard-fought-for Defamation Act in 2013. It therefore lacks a single publication rule, certain defences to counter defamation claims - including the 'public interest' defence - or a “serious harm” test, where companies in particular have to show loss of earnings in order to sue. This has resulted in many books being "shelved" for fear of litigation in Northern Ireland, English PEN told The Bookseller in May.
The Northern Ireland consultation report authored by Andrew Scott issued "strong recommendations" in favour of either building on or emulating the Defamation Act 2013, which the Society of Authors has praised as having already "an immediate impact on authors’ rights to freedom of expression and their ability to protect their reputation against inappropriate libel claims" in England and Wales.
The consultation on which the report was based was contributed to by the Libel Reform Campaign and endorsed by a number of Northern Irish academics, writers, journalists and lawyers including Lord Bew, Dr. Tom Woolley, Paul Connolly and Lyra McKee, Brian Garrett, Glenn Patterson and Brian John Spencer.
The result is two pieces of primary legislation that could be taken through the Northern Ireland Assembly, as the Defamation (Northern Ireland) Bill; and the Libel Reform Campaign is now urging the Northern Ireland Assembly to adopt one of the draft bills, "as a matter of urgency to ensure that the chill on freedom of expression in Northern Ireland on matters in the public interest is lifted".
Mike Harris, an advisor to the Libel Reform Campaign said: “I’m delighted this consultation and Dr Scott’s expert analysis has shown the case for reform of the law of libel in Northern Ireland is now irrefutable. It’s now time for the Assembly to protect free speech and get legislation passed this year.”
Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, said the draft legislation could act as "a blueprint for other countries to adopt". She added: "With huge public support for reform and the legal arguments now concluded, the Assembly must act and bring forward legislation this year.”
The consultation, asking whether defamation law in Northern Ireland should be brought into step with the Defamation Act 2013, was formally held between November 2014 and February 2015. However, the report was delayed at the department of finance after Northern Ireland’s Law Commission closed in April 2015 due to budget cuts.
Science writer Simon Singh has been a vocal advocate of reform since he was personally affected by a two-year libel battle that was initiated by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) following critical comments he made about the organisation in the Guardian in 2008.
He called the report and its findings "truly tremendous", after having branded Northern Ireland's initial hesitation to implement the same reforms as England and Wales "bizarre and an insult to free speech" in previous interviews.
Singh told the SoA: "Having been a victim of English libel law, and having seen how the Libel Reform Campaign has successfully argued for a fairer libel law in England and Wales, it is truly tremendous to see Northern Ireland following a similar path. Freedom of speech is one of the pillars of a free society, and it is crucial that Northern Ireland brings its defamation law up to date, particularly so that the rich and the powerful, as well as the bullies and the crooks, can be held to account."
The campaign for libel reform in Scotland is ongoing, and over 100 authors, including Val McDermid, James Kelman, Ian Rankin and Neal Ascherson, backed Scottish PEN's campaign it be made “fit for purpose” for the the 21st century, by signing a joint letter last year. The Scottish Law Commission is due to offer draft legislation and recommendations in 2017 following its own consultation on the issue.