Legislation providing for wide-ranging reforms to Ireland’s defamation laws, including the abolition of juries in High Court cases, will be brought before the Oireachtas by the end of the year.
In March the Minister for Justice Simon Harris published the General Scheme of the Defamation (Amendment) Bill, following government approval for priority drafting of the Bill and referral of the General Scheme to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice for pre-legislative scrutiny.
Minister Harris said, “Democracy cannot truly flourish without robust protection for the right of freedom of expression. Of course, this must always be carefully balanced with safeguarding the individual right to good name and reputation, and the right of access to justice. I believe this legislation strikes the right balance between those rights.”
The Department of Justice carried out a lengthy and thorough review of existing defamation law, taking account of submissions from interested parties and from the general public. The Bill published in March reflects the major findings of the Department of Justice review.
Existing defamation law is only 14 years old. The review took place for two reasons. First, the Defamation Act 2009 has a built-in requirement to carry out a review after five years. Second, the media landscape has changed dramatically in the last two decades. Two major changes are the move from accessing news and information from print and broadcasting to digital platforms and the growing awareness of the consequences of largely unregulated social media.
The most controversial reform is the abolition of juries in defamation cases. For decades it has been argued that the level of awards in successful defamation cases has been disproportionately high, that Irish awards are the highest in Europe.
James Browne, minister of state in the Department of Justice, said, “The publication of the general scheme of the Defamation Bill is a milestone in reform of Ireland’s defamation laws.
“Ultimately it will improve access to justice for those whose good reputation is unfairly attacked, improve the consistency and proportionality of awards and redress in defamation cases and provide clearer protection for public interest journalism and investigative reporting.
“I intend to have a full bill before the Oireachtas by the end of the year. I look forward to engaging stakeholders and colleagues, both interdepartmentally and at EU level, as the legislative process continues.”
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