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18 July 2019

Government Commits To Report On Defamation Regime In Northern Ireland

The Government has committed to producing a report on defamation in Northern Ireland after peers from different parties called for the regime to be brought into line with England and Wales to crack down on libel tourism and the threat to freedom of speech in the province.

Speaking in the House of Lords this week, Lord Black of Brentwood highlighted the frustration in Northern Ireland that the Defamation Act 2013 had not been brought into effect in Northern Ireland leading to Belfast gaining the “unenviable position” as the “new libel capital of Europe.”

Lord Black said: “That case for change is overwhelming. It is clear that the legislation has worked in England and Wales. It is clear that there is strong demand for its implementation from the people of Northern Ireland, including, crucially, the academic and scientific community.”

Tabling an amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill designed to extend the Act to Northern Ireland, Lord Black said he wanted the issue to be addressed in Northern Ireland but the urgency of the issue meant that it was not possible to wait until the Assembly and Executive were functioning again.

Lord Black said that the failure to introduce the Act in Northern Ireland amounted to a denial of fundamental human rights to the people of Northern Ireland, impacted negatively on local media and scientific and academic debate in the province, and was damaging democracy.  

“As many noble Lords will be aware, local publishers are now in a very difficult commercial position across the UK and certainly in Northern Ireland, and they can no longer afford to bear the costs of such an oppressive and expensive libel regime,” Lord Black said.

He quoted from letters from Alistair Bushe, editor of the News Letter, who said the “need for libel reform in Northern Ireland is now more urgent than it has ever been” and Gail Walker, editor of the Belfast Telegraph, who said “an extension of the Act to Northern Ireland is long overdue.”

Lord Black’s amendment was supported by peers including Lord Stoneham of Droxford, Lib Dem; Lord Lexden, Conservative; and Lord Empey, Ulster Unionist Party. Lord Stoneham said: “The noble Lord, Lord McNally, was going to speak from these Benches and wanted me to say on our behalf that we fully support this.

“It is long overdue and was a very important piece of reform in the coalition Government. We cannot really understand why there has been a delay in implementing it. Clearly, this is an opportunity to do it. We fully support it.”

Earlier in the debate Lord Duncan, the Under Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said the Government would report on the issue. He said: “As to the question of libel legislation in Northern Ireland, we will report on that, although I am not sure exactly how.

“I am aware that my noble friend Lord Black of Brentwood will be bringing up this issue shortly. I will happily commit to meeting him and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, to talk about this separately, in addition to committing to that report.”