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23 March 2022

NMA Welcomes Defamation Law Reform In Northern Ireland

The News Media Association has welcomed the latest development in the reform of defamation law in Northern Ireland after a key piece of legislation completed its passage in Stormont.   

Mike Nesbitt has welcomed the passage of his Private Member's Bill on defamation which the Ulster Unionist MLA said will rebalance the competing rights of free speech and the right of an individual to protect their reputation.

The NMA, which supported the Private Member's Bill, has long campaigned for the regime in Northern Ireland to be brought into line with England and Wales to crack down on the threat to freedom of speech.

The main changes include the end of the presumption to a jury trial in cases of defamation, alongside new defences of truth, honest opinion and publication on matters of public interest. 

Mr Nesbitt said: "Unlike London and Dublin, we have no official opposition or second chamber at Stormont, meaning the role of the media is all the more important in scrutinising the work of the Executive. I am aware it is common practice for rich or influential people to threaten journalists with the law if they publish material that shows them in a bad light, no matter how justified.

"My Clause 4 defence allowing publication if it is in the public interest should relieve journalists from much of the chilling effect of the current regime. That said, more work needs to be done to eradicate the modern curse of so-called SLAPPs, Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, where the wealthy bring forward cases with no legal merit, purely to stall or frustrate responsible journalism.

"The end of jury trials should make defamation cases simpler, faster and hopefully less expensive. The experience of non-jury trials in England and Wales is that it has had highly beneficial consequences, allowing a judge to make early determinations as to whether statements are actually defamatory and how to proceed where they are.

"I hope that when this Bill receives Royal Assent in the near future that it will improve if not revolutionise that essential balance between the right to freedom of expression versus the right to defend reputations from unwarranted and untrue attack."