Irish defamation bill to avoid excessive damages

• Limitation period cut from six years to one
• Reynolds-style defence of responsible journalism introduced
• Offer of amends procedure to help cut costs

Irish judges will have to advise juries in libel trials on the amounts they should consider awarding in damages by the end of next month.

The reform, expected to be signed into law by mid-July, will require a high court judge to give juries guidance.

The Supreme Court will also have the power to overturn an award and substitute its own figure.

Justice minister Dermot Ahern’s spokesman said the new defamation law would reform the way libel awards were made.

“The defamation bill resumes committee stage next Wednesday, and the minister hopes to have it enacted before the recess,” he said.

“An element of the bill allows a judge to advise a jury, or give direction in relation to the appropriate damages.”

It is expected that the bill will be signed into law by mid-July.

The announcement comes a day after PR consultant Monica Leech was awarded a record-breaking €1.87m (£1.5m) by a jury at the high court in Dublin over stories which appeared in the Evening Herald.

The reports implied that she won lucrative contracts because she was having an extramarital affair with Minister Martin Cullen – an allegation she has always denied.

It was the third record-breaking damages award to be handed down by Irish juries within three years.

Independent Newspapers, which owns the Herald, said it would appeal against the damages.

The National Union of Journalists said the amount awarded by the jury showed a clear need for reform.

Leech’s damages almost doubled the previous record, set last year when Martin McDonagh was awarded €900,000 (£763,760) and his costs after suing the Sunday World over an article published in September 1999 which described him as a “traveller drug king.” The paper is appealing.

In November 2006, a jury awarded media mogul Denis O’Brien damages of €750,000 (£704,000) against the Mirror Group even though an earlier award of €317,343 (£298,000) by the jury at the first trial of the case was overturned on appeal by the Supreme Court as being disproportionately high.

The defamation bill also introduces a defence of fair and reasonable publication on a matter of public interest – similar to the Reynolds defence in England and Wales – and an offer of amends procedure similar to that which operates under English law, and introduces a system of payments into court.

It also cuts the limitation period for bringing an action to one year – at present the limitation period is six years – but gives a court the power to extend the limitation period for up to a maximum of two years.

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