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14 January 2021

Lords Call For Reform of Northern Ireland Defamation Regime

Peers have called for action to bring the Northern Ireland defamation regime into line with the rest of the United Kingdom in order to end the chill on freedom of speech there.  

The Lords debate on Monday was initiated by Lord Lexden who asked the Government what recent discussions they have had with the Northern Ireland Executive about extending the Defamation Act 2013 to Northern Ireland.

Opening the debate, Lord Lexden said:  “During a debate on this subject which I initiated in 2013, I asked a question sent to me by a leading Belfast solicitor. More than seven years on, I will ask the question again. Why should the citizens and journalists of Northern Ireland not be afforded the same protection as those in the rest of the United Kingdom, whether they are expressing opinions online or holding government to account?

“Secondly, will the Government extract from the Northern Ireland Executive clear reasons—cogent and convincing reasons, I hope—for the long delay in extending the benefits of this landmark human rights legislation to our fellow countrymen and countrywomen in Northern Ireland, who have been given no explanation by the Executive?”

The News Media Association has 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 in the province.

During the debate, Lord Garnier, Conservative, asked the Minister if he agreed that  freedom of expression and freedom to criticise those in positions of power and influence are curtailed so long as the Act does not apply to Northern Ireland.

Lord Loomba, Crossbench, added: “My Lords, it is now eight years since the defamation law was changed in England and Wales to bring about a fairer system, and it is nearly five years since the Stormont Executive commissioned a report recommending bringing Northern Ireland into line. Does the Minister agree that making the Northern Ireland legislation consistent is long overdue, and that not applying the serious harm test there is benefiting claimants over respondents and breaching the rule of law?”

Lord Browne of Ladyton, Labour, said: “There are the issues of media plurality, the use of private injunctions to try to stifle legislation and, more worryingly, continuous online abuse and paramilitary threats to journalists. Surely this is a shared responsibility between the UK Government and the devolved Administration. I understand that the Government are not discussing libel laws with the Northern Ireland Executive, but what are they discussing with them to try to resolve these problems?

Lord Caine, Conservative, said there was “an even greater burden” on journalists to scrutinise Ministers and hold them to account because there was no Official Opposition.

He added: “To do that effectively, they need the same legal framework and protections as those in the rest of the United Kingdom. Would not the quickest route to achieving that be for the Northern Ireland Assembly to get behind the Private Member’s Bill on this matter that is shortly to be introduced by my Ulster Unionist colleague Mike Nesbitt?”

Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick, Non-Affiliated, said: "My Lords, what work has been done by the Northern Ireland Executive on updating the defamation laws in view of the fact that the Northern Ireland Law Commission has indicated that there are six times as many claims for defamation in Northern Ireland as in other regions in the UK, thereby highlighting the need to update our defamation laws?"

Lord Stewart of Dirleton, the Advocate-General for Scotland, responded: "My Lords, freedom of expression and the ability to hold Ministers to account on matters of public interest are of course of the greatest importance, and I am sure that the Northern Ireland Assembly will wish to consider the position carefully in considering that Private Member’s Bill and any measures that the Northern Ireland Executive may themselves bring forward."