Northern Ireland news

Defamation laws in north could be reformed 'by next year'

UUP Party negotiator Mike Nesbitt speaking to the media in the great hall of Stormont Parliament buildings in Belfast as the deadline approaches for the resumption of a power sharing assembly in Northern Ireland. PA Photo. Picture date: Thursday January 9, 2020. See PA story ULSTER Politics . Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire.

REFORMS of Northern Ireland's defamation laws could be passed by next year after a private member's bill was given the green light by the British government.

The bill, brought forward by Ulster Unionist Mike Nesbitt, aims to bring the north's laws into line with those in England and Wales.

Five years ago, a report commissioned by the executive recommended that the north's laws should be brought into line.

But the change still has not happened.

The law in England and Wales was reformed by the Defamation Act, 2013, which introduced reforms including that claimants have to show they have suffered "serious harm" before suing.

The reforms also give more protection from libel for those running websites if they can show they are not the authors of defamatory posts.

Mr Nesbitt said that because his bill covers online content, he needed the Secretary of State's consent before the assembly Speaker could accept it.

"I have been trying for over five years to bring Northern Ireland's defamation laws into line with the rest of the United Kingdom, but have been frustrated by a number of obstacles, not least the three-year hiatus when Stormont was suspended," he said.

Mr Nesbitt said a change in the law is long overdue.

"Defamation may not seem like an important matter on the face of it, but there is a need to keep a proper balance between freedom of speech and the protection of reputations," he said.

"My proposals will help protect investigative journalism.

"With no Official Opposition at Stormont, or a second revising chamber such as the Lords in London or Seanad Éireann in Dublin, the role of the media in scrutinising the work of the Executive is even more important here than elsewhere.

"My proposals will also offer protections to academics who may currently choose not to publish commentaries they fear may attract legal action from wealthy individuals and organisations.

"This will make our universities more attractive to researchers. It will also protect jobs in the media and publishing sectors."

He said he believed that his bill can be passed through the assembly before next May's planned assembly elections.

However, if an early election is called the bill, and all other pieces of legislation passing through the assembly, will fall.

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