“unless it’s because politicians in Northern Ireland want to be able to sue newspapers more readily…”

Some interesting added detail in the News Letter report following up on the story of the Northern Ireland Executive’s failure to consent to the Defamation Bill going through the UK Parliament.  To begin with, it’s claimed that it wasn’t the Executive after all…

Last Wednesday, the News Letter revealed that the Defamation Bill – the first reform of the UK’s libel laws since the 19th Century – had been blocked from extending to Northern Ireland by Stormont’s leaders.

However, the SDLP and Alliance Party have since said that they support the reform. And the SDLP said that the decision was not taken by the five-party Executive but by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’ department [OFMDFM].

[The semi-detached polit-bureau strikes again! – Ed]  Apparently…  The News Letter’s Sam McBride has been talking to Lord Lester of Herne Hill – who cites the Irish News restaurant review libel case as an example of the need for reform of the libel laws here.  From the News Letter report

Lord Lester – who initiated the libel law reform three years ago with a private member’s bill which won cross-party support and was then adopted by the Government – said that he could not understand Stormont’s decision.

Speaking to the News Letter from London at the weekend, the leading QC said of the decision: “Obviously, it will not be very wise or sensible.”

However, he added: “Under the devolution settlement, of course, it is for the Northern Ireland authorities, like the Scottish ones, to decide what they want to do.”

Lord Lester said that the situation was in some ways similar to Stormont’s decision to retain the common law offence of ‘blasphemous libel’ after it was abolished in the rest of the UK.

However, he added: “This would be a much more serious anomaly because it would mean that publications on both sides of the Irish Sea would have to comply with three different kinds of law; the modern code which has been worked on for three years on this side of the Irish Sea, the Irish Defamation Act itself in the Republic and the discredited common law in Northern Ireland.

“I can’t think of any good reason to do that, unless it’s because politicians in Northern Ireland want to be able to sue newspapers more readily, which doesn’t seem to me to be a very good reason.”

Indeed.  And, finally, also from the News Letter report

On Wednesday the DUP said in a statement that it was “not a matter of concern” that Northern Ireland would have significantly different libel laws to the rest of the UK, as “Scottish law will also be different”.

But Lord Lester said that was incorrect as there was a well-founded expectation that the Defamation Bill would be extended to Scotland. In October the Scottish Parliament passed a Legislative Consent Motion – the motion which Stormont blocked – to allow a section of the bill to extend to Scotland.

Earlier this week, leading Belfast lawyer Brian Garrett said that there had been “such a poor legislative programme” at Stormont and it seemed that the Defamation Bill “hasn’t been given any thought” by the Executive. He added: “That worries me.”

The News Letter approached OFMDFM for a comment on Lord Lester’s views but none had been received at the time of going to press.

They probably couldn’t agree what line to take on their failure to consent to libel law reform…

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