Media groups have hailed a decision by the European Court of Human Rights which upheld an appeal by Independent Newspapers regarding a record €1.25m libel payout.
The ECHR ruled that Ireland had breached Article 10 of the European Convention with regard to freedom of expression, after Independent News and Media had argued that the €1.25m libel award by the Supreme Court to former Government press adviser Monica Leech had a chilling effect on journalism.
News Brands Ireland and the National Union of Journalists were among those who welcomed the ruling. Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan, said the judgment was a “significant one” and he added that while the case refers to Irish law prior to the introduction of the 2009 Defamation Act, a review of the current legislation would take the ECHR ruling into account.
The case of Independent Newspapers (Ireland) Ltd v Ireland was brought to the court in Strasbourg more than seven years after the initial libel hearing at which Ms Leech, a PR consultant, had been awarded record damages.
A series of articles in the Evening Herald in late 2004 made allegations relating to Ms Leech. She sued for defamation and in June 2009 a jury in the High Court assessed damages at €1.872m. The newspaper published an apology in January 2010, but appealed the extent of the damages, claiming that no reasonable jury could have made such an award.
Later, in the Supreme Court, the level of damages was reduced to €1.25m. In its submission to the ECHR, Independent News and Media (INM) argued that there had been a disproportionate interference with its freedom of expression and that “the unpredictability of the domestic system meant that there was a strong and continuous chilling effect on the news media in Ireland”.
The eight-person ECHR panel ruled in its favour in what the NUJ acting general secretary Séamus Dooley said was “a landmark judgment for Irish journalism”.
“The ECHR emphasised the need for ‘a detailed and specific direction’ to juries and this is consistent with the long-held belief of the NUJ,” he said.
INM group editor-in-chief Stephen Rae said: “The judgment is a very positive step forward in our campaign as journalists to reform the expensive and oppressive defamation law in Ireland.”
Allan Prosser, acting editor of the Irish Examiner, said that the European Court decision in the Monica Leech case was generally to be welcomed and that it represented a significant move against the high and punitive benchmarks which had been set by both of the original judgments.
Mr Prosser added: “In recent years Dublin has become the libel capital of the world, a role that was once filled by London, and that is is no cause for national pride.
“This is a step in favour of freedom of expression and rights to information. To that extent it is a victory, but there will be further challenges to come.”
The ruling does not affect the damages previously awarded to Ms Leech.
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