Independent Newspapers looks set to challenge Ireland’s defamation laws after reportedly filing papers with the European Court of Human Rights. The challenge concerns a €1.87 million damages award made against Independent Newspapers in 2009, the highest ever such award at that time, following its publication of a number of defamatory articles about the PR consultant, Monica Leech.
While the Supreme Court subsequently reduced the award on appeal to €1.25 million, the media group will nevertheless contend that Ireland’s defamation law, in allowing for such a large award, is incompatible with the right to freedom of expression under the European Convention on Human Rights. The “serious chilling effect” that the award has on freedom of expression is said by Independent Newspapers to be a consequence of inadequate domestic safeguards to mitigate against disproportionately large awards.
Independent Newspapers previously brought a similar case to the European Court of Human Rights after a substantial damages award was made against it in favour of the former government minister, Proinsias De Rossa. On that occasion, the Court ruled that Irish domestic law on defamation damages was compatible with the right to freedom of expression under the European Convention on Human Rights. The court was sufficiently satisfied with the jury guidelines and the role of the appellate court in that regard.
The Defamation Act 2009 has come into force since both the De Rossa and Leech cases. The Act now requires the judge to give guidance to the jury on damages as well as permitting the parties to make submissions to the jury in that regard. It remains to be seen what effects these new provisions will have when the European Court of Human Rights revisits the treatment of defamation damages awards in Ireland.