The report summarises responses to a public consultation and proposes legislative reforms, following calls for changes to the law of defamation in England, Scotland and Wales in 2013 to be extended to Northern Ireland. Those changes included replacing certain common law defences with statutory defences, introducing a new defence for website operators, and introducing a requirement to show serious harm or the likelihood of such harm when an individual brings an action for defamation.
The report argues that there is no requirement in domestic or international human rights law to amend the NI regime but offers two draft Bills. One essentially replicates the 2013 Act; the other draws on and adds to provisions in that statute. Scott highlights the need to consider procedural arrangements with a view to minimising costs and ensuring access to justice.
The report states
In September 2013, the NI Law Commission (NILC) was asked by the Minister of Finance and Personnel to carry out a study of the law of defamation. The NILC undertook the first parts of that study and published a consultation document in November 2014. The consultation period closed on 20 February 2015. The NILC itself closed on 31 March 2015.
The research undertaken by the NILC substantiated the perception that the law of defamation wrongly restricts the proper exercise of freedom of expression in Northern Ireland. It also highlighted problems of cost and access to justice as key concerns that “cut both ways”. Harms to reputation caused by false publications are often left unremedied.
In England and Wales, the Defamation Act 2013 was introduced in the hope of addressing similar concerns. It comprises an important step forward, but arguably does not yet provide a regime for the resolution of disputes that might adequately triangulate the individual and social interests in reputation and free speech.
The aim of this report is to build on the work of the NILC, to draw on the consultation responses that it received, to assess the recent experience of the law of defamation in England and Wales under the Defamation Act 2013, and on these bases to set out recommendations for reform of the law of defamation in Northern Ireland.
The key principles underpinning the report are that:
– defamation law must provide a proper balance between individual rights to reputation (Art 8 ECHR) and to freedom of expression (Art 10 ECHR), and promote effective access to justice for all parties (Art 6 ECHR).
– defamation law must recognise the importance of societal interests in the openness of public communications and the accuracy of reputational information.
– defamation law must encourage the efficient, inexpensive and prompt resolution of disputes regarding statements that have been published, limiting any need to revert to court as far as is possible.
– defamation law must be comprehensible to members of the public and to any prospective litigant.
– defamation law should focus responsibility, and potential liability, for statements that have been published primarily on the authors, editors and publishers of those statements.
In line with these principles, the Report makes a series of recommendations regarding the reform of defamation law in Northern Ireland. Of these, most would require legislative action by the Northern Ireland Assembly. A draft Bill comprising all of the recommended reforms is included as Appendix 1 to the Report. A second draft Bill that would merely emulate the Defamation Act 2013 in Northern Irish law is included as Appendix 2. Some recommended changes could be given effect through the review of civil justice currently being undertaken by Lord Justice Gillen.
The Report recommends that, to a significant extent, measures equivalent to the provisions of the Defamation Act 2013 should be introduced into Northern Irish law. Specifically, this includes strong recommendations that the following provisions should be emulated (with consequential changes reflecting the shift in jurisdiction):
– Section 2: defence of truth [see paras 2.09-2.16].
– Section 4: defence of publication on a matter of public interest [see paras 2.39-2.42].
– Section 6: qualified privilege for peer-reviewed scientific or academic statements [see paras 2.46- 2.47].
– Section 7: extension of existing qualified privileges [see paras 2.48-2.49].
– Section 8: single publication rule [see paras 2.108-2.110].
– Section 12: power of court to order publication of summary of judgment [see paras 2.123-2.125].
– Section 13: power of court to order take-down of statements [see paras 2.123-2.125].
– Section 14: updating of the law of slander [see paras 2.104-2.106].
The Report also recommends that the following provisions of the Defamation Act 2013 should be emulated (with consequential changes reflecting the shift in jurisdiction), although in each of these cases it is considered that the argument for introduction of the given provision is less compelling:
– Section 1: serious harm test [see paras 2.85-2.103].
– Section 9: action against a person not domiciled in the UK or a Member State [see paras 2.111- 2.115].
– Section 11: presumption in favour of trial by judge alone [see paras 2.116-2.122].
The Report recommends that a new defence of honest opinion, similar to section 3 of the Defamation Act 2013, should be introduced by the Northern Ireland Assembly [see paras 2.17-2.38]. It proposes, however, that - relative to the English variant - this defence should be augmented in three ways:
– first, it should be possible for a publisher to rely on privileged statements that were published either before or “at the same time as” the opinion. This proposal corrects a drafting error in the 2013 Act [see paras 2.35-2.36].
– secondly, it should be possible for a publisher to rely not only on true underpinning facts or privileged statements as the basis for his or her opinion, but also on “facts” that he or she “reasonably believed to be true at the time the opinion was published”. This expands the defence, especially so as to defend the position of social media commentators [see paras 2.28-2.34].
– thirdly, it is recommended that it be made clear that the defence extends to cover “inferences of verifiable fact”. This is intended to clarify an aspect of the defence that is agreed to be the current law by many legal commentators, but on which there remains a measure of uncertainty in English law [see paras 2.25-2.27].
The aim behind these revisions is to ensure that the honest opinion defence delivers on its promise of significant protection for freedom of expression.
The Report recommends that the jurisdictional exclusion relating to secondary publishers (intermediaries) found in section 10 of the Defamation Act 2013 should not be introduced in its current form. Rather, that exclusion should be extended so as to prevent any defamation claim being brought against a person other than the primary author, editor or publisher of a statement [see paras 2.50-2.84]. This reform would absolve (online) intermediaries from potential liability. This recommendation entails that no equivalent to the defence for website operators found in section 5 of the Defamation Act 2013 need be introduced into Northern Irish law, and that existing defences for intermediaries can be repealed. It is acknowledged that reputations are exceedingly vulnerable in the online environment. It is considered, however, that sufficient alternative avenues for the protection of reputations exist that would deliver prompt and efficacious solutions for plaintiffs.
The Report recommends the introduction of a further bipartite reform: the abolition of the common law “single meaning rule” and the introduction of a jurisdictional bar to claims on capable meanings that have been retracted or corrected by a publisher promptly and prominently [see chapter 3]. This combined reform is intended to encourage the swift resolution of disputes generated by ambiguous publications, to secure the correction or retraction of unintended slights on reputation, to obviate the risk of liability for publishers in very many cases, and substantially to reduce the cost of bringing a defamation claim to court for determination. This proposed reform is also intended to make defamation law more comprehensible to the wider public.
The Report notes the potential desirability of a range of further procedural reforms that would reduce cost and enhance access to justice in this context. It recommends that these options should be considered fully during the review of civil justice that is currently being undertaken by Lord Justice Gillen [see chapter 4].