Monday, 3 March 2014

Sunday Politics NI discuss libel reform

(From L-R) Lord Bew, Paul Tweed and Mark Carruthers
The House of Lords tried to push through libel reform in Northern Ireland by virtue of an amendment tabled by Lord Lexden. However it was ruled that the Stormont Assembly has primacy on the issue by virtue of the fact that libel law is a reserved matter.

Mark Carruthers asked Lord Bew: "Why was this attempt made at Westminster?" Lord Bew responded:
"Well when you get a Northern Ireland Provision Bill going through the House it's a very rare event. It's inevitable that people will make the attempt and there's a lot of feeling in the House of Lords on this issue to at least have a serious debate about it. The truth is now, the matter as far as the parliament in London is concerned, is actually over... it'w now a matter for the Assembly. The new minister Simon Hamilton has set up a report from the Law Commission with a distinguished LSE academic Dr Scott to work on. And really that is where the debate and the focus now is. But I think it was worth airing once again last week at Westminster the concerns that exist about freedom of expression and that fact that it is now at a weaker level than the rest of the UK."
Mark Carruthers then asked: "What is your basic concern?" For Lord Bew "the key issue" is academic freedom, not only regarding science but for historical and political matters. Lord Bew also is encourages that the new law extends the public interest defense. "So in my opinion, if we're going to deal with the past particularly in Northern Ireland, then one has to have the freest possible discussion; and there really isn't any question out there I think that historically the courts have been used to limit in some ways the amount of freedom which now is (as far as all the parties in London are concerned) supposed to be the correct context for public debate."

Paul Tweed said that it was "outrageous" that the peers in the House of Lords attempted to push the matter forward. He said that our laws are "broadly similar" to the Republic of Ireland and that there is "absolutely no need for change whatsoever" saying that the current libel regime has sufficient safety mechanisms built in. Paul Tweed explained that his concern was for the ordinary man and woman. "My big concern is about access to justice for the ordinary man on the street. We talk about academics and scientists, but if Lord Bew feels there is a genuine threat to academic and scientific debate then I would certainly be more than happy to countenance specific changes in the law; but not whole-scale introduction of an onerous law that completely makes it impossible for the ordinary person to take legal proceedings here in Northern Ireland." He made a final point on the matter of juries:
"One of the key changes made in this legislation is the removal of juries. I sat on all the ministry of justice panels in London when they were debating the English changes to the law and I didn't get one argument that convinced me that the juries were not doing a good job here and it's very significant that the one thing that the press are very worried about here are their readers, the general public, deciding whether they have performed properly and fairly in terms of their reporting." 
Paul Tweed refuted claims that he could find himself very busy in his standing as a leading libel lawyer in Northern Ireland. Lord Bew:
"It's true that Scotland is different, but Scotland has it's own elaborated tradition of law. In this case, essentially in these matters we have had here [in Northern Ireland] UK law. You're now asking our judiciary to operate with the old second hand car. There's a new model in London, and basically the media in London which comes into Northern Ireland will be operating in accordance to the new model and it creates a number of anomalies and difficulties for the judiciary here in Belfast."
Paul Tweed rebutted by saying that the law in Northern Ireland is "broadly" similar to both Scotland and Ireland. The number of libel actions that have come to Belfast over the last 30 years I've been practicing has been about 2 every decade... this is a non-issue, a non-problem."

Mark Carruthers took some final thoughts from Cathy Gormley-Heenan and Newton Emerson. Newton Emerson said:
"I'm fed up defending libel reform because everybody thinks it's about journalists because they're hearing about it through journalists. But the Defamation Act is very specifically and mainly about protecting scientists and academics following some very alarming cases where medical researchers investigating the safety of products and medicines pursued and sued because companies didn't like the results. There are thousands of jobs like that in Northern Ireland in our universities and major firms. The DUP ironically is heavily involved in promoting us as a base for that research. It's only going to take one of these ridiculous cases to make us an international pariah. And a similar risk applies to IT and the film/TV industry which the DUP is so proud of. So those industries need to get off the fence and start defending their interests because the media can't do it alone. 
Cathy Gormley-Heenan finished by saying:
"I do think our [108 MLAs] should take a steer from the deliberations in the House of Lords because they have much experience in the reading of these bills. Particularly in a society like ours where we have no formal opposition the media plays that role and anything that could hamper the role of the media in holding the government to account is problematic."

No comments:

Post a Comment