Slugger O'Toole

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Sinn Féin MLAs to claim ‘qualified privilege’ for press statements in NI Water libel case?

Fri 16 November 2012, 4:53pm

The BBC reports from Belfast High Court as, former non-executive director in NI Water, Declan Gormley’s libel proceedings against Sinn Féin, the party’s Newry and Armagh MLA Cathal Boylan, and former assembly member Willie Clarke, heads to its court date – 26 November.  Apparently, no political party members nor NI Water employees, members and staff on the Stormont Public Accounts Committee are to be allowed to sit on the jury.  And, also from the BBC report

At a review hearing on Friday, Mr Justice Gillen was told that the grounds on which the action was being resisted had narrowed.

The defendants were to claim qualified privilege, the court heard.

Nicolas Hanna QC, for Mr Gormley, said he was astonished at the argument that there was a right to “reply to an attack”.

“As I understand it, the defendants are saying Mr Gormley himself went public on this and indeed appeared on a television programme in August 2010 in which he was highly critical of the decision by the minister to sack him,” he said.

“Therefore what the defendants are saying is this was a reply to an attack made by Mr Gormley.”

Mr Hanna claimed it was “an extraordinary proposition” being made by the defendants.

“It does not extend to defending yourself by making defamatory statements about your accuser,” he added.

Nor would it extend to making defamatory press statements in defence of your party’s NI Executive Minister…  MLAs or not.

Of course, if the then NI DRD Minister, Conor Murphy, had believed he, himself, had been defamed at that time, then he could have taken libel proceedings.  [The law is for little people! - Ed]  Indeed…

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Comments (19)

  1. Mick Fealty (profile) says:

    I. Am. Speechless.

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  2. wild turkey (profile) says:

    Is ‘qualified privilege’ the legal equivalent of the ‘average industrial wage’?

    or perhaps ‘qualified privilege’ is a lift out of the play book of Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili?

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  3. Could be much worse, they might claim unqualified privilege. My experience of juries is that, on the whole, they are collectively pretty smart. We’ll see.

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  4. Sp12 (profile) says:

    Stupid abstentionists could have used the house of commons.

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  5. I wish I could find out exactly what the SF ministers had said.

    Qualified privilege can only be used as a defence if there was no malice in the defamatory statement.

    I’m sure there was no malice – just a need to find somebody to blame for the winter water crisis!

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  6. Comrade Stalin (profile) says:

    Stupid abstentionists could have used the house of commons.

    They could have used the NI Assembly.

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  7. Sp12 (profile) says:

    “They could have used the NI Assembly.”

    Mehhh, no one pays attention to what’s said in the assembly.

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  8. Comrade Stalin (profile) says:

    or perhaps ‘qualified privilege’ is a lift out of the play book of Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili?

    Please don’t take my name in vain.

    Is there any chance someone could explain all this libel legalise to us plebs ?

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  9. Nevin (profile) says:

    Parliamentary privilege and qualified privilege [pdf file]

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  10. Mick Fealty (profile) says:

    I doubt Willie and Cathal knew anything about it until after the pressers went public.

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  11. Drumlins Rock (profile) says:

    ok, took a while to figure this all out!

    Is sumation right?

    A press release in the name of Willie and Cathal was released, making accusations that Decal Gormley believes are defamatory ( have no idea what they were btw. and presume Mick wants it to stay that way! )

    It is finally reaching court, Willie and Cathal it seems aren’t really going to fight the substance of the claim, but are claiming obscure rights of “qualified privilege”.

    Thanks Nevin for that link, I would think they have a uphill struggle! Am I right in saying even if they tick some of the boxes for qualified priviledge, if there is even a hint of malice it is canceled out?

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  12. Nevin (profile) says:

    Sam McBride has reported the following exchange in the court:

    A third time Mr McCann spoke while Mr Hanna was addressing the court and Mr Justice Gillen said: “If you interrupt one more time, Mr McCann, I will refer this to the professional conduct committee. You have interrupted this case on numerous occasions. I really am cross about this.”

    However, by the end of the two-hour hearing when Mr McCann again offered an apology to the judge, Mr Justice Gillen said: “These things happen. You’re normally in the pattern of good behaviour.”

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  13. Nevin (profile) says:

    DR, the BBC includes earlier reports on this story in the side-bar. Sam McBride’s article has more detail than the BBC one, in particular the nature of the exchanges in the court. It’s probably not a good idea to irk a judge.

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  14. son of sam (profile) says:

    I presume the Shinners will have some heavier artillery when it comes to the actual court date.

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  15. Mick Fealty (profile) says:

    If they do, the judge may awant to ask some pointed questions about why they delayed so long. Why would they hold back a better card than this one, if they had one?

    leave aside the details of the original accusation; this defence, where it granted seems to be saying that a press office is allowed to defaced someone if they attack them politically.

    Here’s hoping the judgement is suitably clear and robust.

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  16. Drumlins Rock (profile) says:

    sos,
    their arsenal is rather sparse by the sound of this hearing, and the judge would not be impressed if they produced major new information at the main trial, it will boil down to whether a jury will be convinced by Gormleys case and understand also the technicalities of “qualified priveledge”

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  17. son of sam (profile) says:

    I was alluding to having heavyweight Senior Counsel on the next occasion.

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  18. Mick Fealty (profile) says:

    For all the technicalities of the defence case they’ve chosen, the jury will have to boil down everything to one question: could these statements have been issued under ‘public interest’?

    Unless they have a considerable weight of evidence that’s not yet made the public light of day, I’ve seen nothing yet that supports this idea.

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  19. Drumlins Rock (profile) says:

    creek no paddle?

    being a fly on the wall of that jury room would be interesting! chance of a unanimous decision though could be slim, but who knows. The case alone revealing how SF works will grab enough headlines.

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