The case related to a front page article of January 30, 2005, concerning a burglary at Ms Leech’s home some months earlier. Ms Leech’s proceedings were taken against Independent Newspapers Ltd, publisher of the Sunday Independent.
It denied libel and its defence included pleas of qualified privilege and public interest justification.
The case was initiated in April 2005 but, after notices to proceed were served in 2008, little more happened until 2014 when Independent Newspapers applied to have the case dismissed and Ms Leech served a further notice of intention to proceed.
In November 2015, the High Court found inordinate and inexcusable delay by Ms Leech in advancing her action but also ruled the balance of justice favoured letting it proceed.
In a unanimous judgment yesterday, the three-judge Court of Appeal granted the appeal by Independent Newspapers, represented by Cian Ferriter, against permitting the case proceed.
Ms Leech had not disputed the High Court finding of inordinate and inexcusable delay on her part but argued the newspaper acquiesced in that delay while she pursued two other libel cases. She also alleged it was not prejudiced by the delay.
The issue for the appeal court to decide was whether the balance of justice favoured dismissing the case or allowing it go ahead.
Giving the appeal court’s unanimous judgment, Ms Justice Mary Irvine held the High Court made legal errors in its assessment of where the balance of justice lay. Ms Leech, the judge said, made a tactical decision to “park” this case, initiated in April 2005, while she pursued two other libel actions.
One of those cases, initiated in 2004 over articles in the Evening Herald, published by Independent Newspapers, led to a €1.87m damages award in 2009, later reduced to €1.25m by the Supreme Court in 2014 on appeal. The second case, over a 2004 article in the Irish Independent, is subject to a retrial.
Ms Leech parked this third action and it was not disputed she did not communicate her decision to do so to the newspaper, the judge said. A person who did that risks being penalised for her delay and the High Court had erred in finding Independent Newspapers acquiesced in the delay.
The High Court should also have considered the difficulties facing a jury seeking to assess a public interest defence concerning an article published in 2004, the judge said.