Freedom of expression and the freedom to criticise those in positions of power and influence are curtailed without urgent reform to Northern Ireland defamation laws, peers have warned.
Leading QCs and peers in Westminster added their voices to those of journalists and media lawyers calling for the 66-year-old Northern Ireland legislation to be brought in line with the Defamation Act 2013 which protects England and Wales.
Peers criticised Stormont over long delays in extending the Act, however senior government law officer Lord Stewart of Dirleton told the House of Lords on Monday that with defamation law being a devolved matter, the UK government has no place to prioritise the legal reforms affecting the nation.
“Why should the citizens and journalists of Northern Ireland not be afforded the same protection as those in the rest of the United Kingdom, whether they are expressing opinions online or holding government to account?” Tory peer Lord Lexden asked the House.
There are six times as many claims for defamation in Northern Ireland as in other regions in the UK, according to the Northern Ireland Law Commission.
The concerns over a lack of protection for journalists in Northern Ireland follow a conference panel held by the Society of Editors in December to address libel reform for the nation and threats to press freedom.
The Society’s campaigns were referenced in the question by Labour peer Lord Browne of Ladyton, who told the House:
“The Society of Editors has made clear that meaningful reform of libel laws in Northern Ireland is part of a broader package of issues that threaten press freedom and freedom of speech there.
“There are the issues of media plurality, the use of private injunctions to try to stifle legislation and, more worryingly, continuous online abuse and paramilitary threats to journalists.
“Surely this is a shared responsibility between the UK Government and the devolved Administration.”
In response Lord Stewart said the matter was a priority for the Northern Ireland Assembly.
“Whilst the extension of the provisions of the Defamation Act may be desirable it is not the condition that the existing law in Northern Ireland… is so deficient as to curtail freedom of expression and the legitimate criticism of those in authority and those in positions of power and influence,” he said.
A transcript of the debate can be viewed on Hansard.
Picture: Stormont, Northern Ireland.