Reform of the Irish defamation laws is long overdue.
Back in November 2019, the then Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan promised to present proposals to reform of our defamation laws to the Dáil by spring 2020, saying that a free and independent media was vital to democracy and essential to avoid any ‘chilling effect’ on free speech due to high and unpredictable libel awards.
That never came to pass, much to the chagrin of our ‘free and independent media’, but the long-awaited review of the Defamation Act 2009 was completed in 2020 and now, finally, the Justice Minister, Helen McEntee, will seek cabinet approval for the publication of that report and the development of a new defamation bill to implement its proposals.
Some of those proposals — including the abolition of juries in High Court defamation cases and the introduction of a mechanism to discourage so-called ‘strategic lawsuits against public participation (‘Slapp’) — have been on the cards for some time and are long overdue for discussion.
The current laws are a significant threat to the State’s press freedom and represent a major prohibitive factor in journalists reporting on high-profile figures and significant private interests. That many litigious prominent individuals use existing defamation laws to become largely unassailable is — and has for too long been — unacceptable.
Irish media umbrella groups and many respected commentators have insisted for years that what is needed is a cap on damages and an end to jury-led defamation cases. The existing laws are accepted to be draconian and the high levels of damages that can result under the existing system can be so punitive they create a ‘chilling effect’ on journalists.
Too often, legal proceedings are used to censor the media and it is widely accepted that the current laws represent a constraint on effective and worthwhile investigative journalism. Substantive change is needed — and quickly.