My Lords, I have very few remarks to make in response to my noble friend, but I thank him for his long speech. There is no doubt that defamation law in Northern Ireland does not reflect today’s digital age. To echo my noble friend’s words, reform is indeed needed. The issues at stake here hit the very heart of the relationship between citizens, media and the state. It is important to deliver protections in the field of freedom of expression.
My noble friend would like to see progress made to update the Northern Ireland law and I understand that position. There are certainly parts of the Defamation Act 2013 that could usefully be extended to Northern Ireland. However, this Act removed the presumption of trial by jury for libel actions. This may of course shorten and reduce the cost of libel actions.
It is of note that the 2017 Review of Civil and Family Justice in Northern Ireland by Lord Justice Gillen noted the extremely important function of the jury in defamation cases in the context of the Northern Ireland jurisdiction, in particular its role in finding whether the plaintiff has been defamed. As the Gillen review notes, juries in Northern Ireland have been traditionally considered the best fact-finder to judge what words or statements mean in the local context with its unique history, and whether they are considered defamatory in any case. These are matters that involve justice and freedoms, and on which the particular jurisdiction is important. The devolved nature of defamation law in Scotland is reflected in the fact that only a very limited number of provisions in the Defamation Act 2013 have been extended to Scotland, in particular around statements or reports which arise in the scientific or academic field.
Similarly, defamation law is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland; therefore, simply extending the Defamation Act 2013 to Northern Ireland is not appropriate. Further, I understand that, prior to the passage of the Defamation Act, the views of the Northern Ireland Executive were sought as to whether they wished to make a legislative consent Motion to provide for the Act to apply in Northern Ireland, but they declined to do so. Decisions to reform the law should be taken by a restored Northern Ireland Executive. This will allow the unique Northern Ireland context to be taken into account in any reforms. I regret that I am not able to help my noble friend but I respectfully request that he withdraw this amendment.