Irish paper fails to delay part payment of record €1.8m libel damages

A Dublin newspaper has failed bid to delay paying part of record €1.8m (£1.6m) in libel damages to a former PR consultant with the Irish government.

The Irish Supreme Court ruled earlier this week that Independent Newspapers (Irl) Ltd's Evening Herald newspaper must immediately pay €850,000 (£735,000) in damage and legal costs to Monica Leech, despite the publisher seeking a stay pending appeal against the award.

The High Court of Ireland last month found articles published in the Herald defamed Leech by wrongly implying she was having an extramarital affair with then environment minister Martin Cullen, awarding her record libel damages.

The damages shattered previous record awards of €750,000 (£636,467) against the Mirror Group to media mogul Denis O'Brien and €900,000 (£763,760) against the Sunday World to traveller Martin McDonagh.

Rejecting the application for a stay, Chief Justice John Murray, one of three appeal judges, said the appeal related only to the amount of damages and the newspaper had no argument of a point of law.

The court was satisfied that Independent Newspapers had failed to demonstrate that Mrs Leech would not be able to repay the money if she lost at the appeal stage.

The Supreme Court also made it clear that the issue of the stay was not to be taken as any form of guidance as to what it would do when it came to the appeal itself.

Eoin McCullough SC, for Independent Newspapers, had argued that the damages award was excessive and disproportionate.

 

He had also submitted that the trial judge was wrong to have directed that the minority of jurors who had not agreed that the newspaper had libelled Leech should not take part in the discussion about the damages.

He also argued there was a strong possibility that an appeal court would interfere with the damages awarded in this case Leech, particularly where there was a "paucity" of evidence as to what specific losses she had suffered.

But Paul O'Higgins, representing Leech, said the scale of the libel concerned a number of articles, and the jury was entitled to conclude that the newspaper had set out to destroy her reputation.

The jury awarded the record damages in June when it decided by a majority that the Evening Herald libelled Leech in a series of about 10 stories it published in November and December 2004 which implied that she won lucrative public relations contracts because she was having an extramarital affair.

Leech has always denied having had any improper relationship with the minister.

The case is expected to be the first to go to appeal since Irish president Mary McAleese signed Ireland's new Defamation Act into law on July 23.

The Act gives the Supreme Court the power to overturn a jury's award of damages in a libel case and substitute its own figure.

The Supreme Court has always previously refused to substitute its own figure for juries' awards of damages, preferring to send cases in which awards are considered to be too high back for a re-trial.

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