Mike Nesbitt welcomes passing of his Private Member's Bill on Defamation

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Mike Nesbitt welcomes passing of his Private Member's Bill on Defamation

Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt has welcomed the passage of his Private Member's Bill on Defamation. This completes a journey of eight and a half years and finally modernises Northern Irish law, rebalancing the competing rights of free speech and the right to protect your reputation.

The main changes include the end of the presumption to a jury trial in cases of defamation, alongside new defences of truth, honest opinion and publication on matters of public interest. The Bill also places a duty on the Department of Finance to keep developments under review for the next two years, when the Assembly will have a further opportunity to refine the law in this area.

Mike Nesbitt said:

"I began this journey on the 19th of September 2013, but for a variety of reasons, not least the three years the Assembly did not sit, it has taken 3,106 days to complete its passage through the Assembly. That journey has seen members reject several of my proposals. I particularly regret the loss of legislation that would have introduced new controls on the internet, where reputations are trashed every minute of the day. Having gone to great lengths to secure the UK Government's consent for the Assembly to legislate on telecommunications, an area reserved to Westminster, I am disappointed we did not take the opportunity. However, the internet should form part of the ongoing review.

"Unlike London and Dublin, we have no official opposition or second chamber at Stormont, meaning the role of the media is all the more important in scrutinising the work of the Executive. I am aware it is common practice for rich or influential people to threaten journalists with the law if they publish material that shows them in a bad light, no matter how justified. My Clause 4 defence allowing publication if it is in the public interest should relieve journalists from much of the chilling effect of the current regime. That said, more work needs to be done to eradicate the modern curse of so-called SLAPPs, Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, where the wealthy bring forward cases with no legal merit, purely to stall or frustrate responsible journalism.

"The end of jury trials should make defamation cases simpler, faster and hopefully less expensive. The experience of non-jury trials in England and Wales is that it has had highly beneficial consequences, allowing a judge to make early determinations as to whether statements are actually defamatory and how to proceed where they are.

"I hope that when this Bill receives Royal Assent in the near future that it will improve if not revolutionise that essential balance between the right to freedom of expression versus the right to defend reputations from unwarranted and untrue attack."