The Court of Appeal recently overturned a €900,000 libel award made by a jury against a newspaper following the publication of an article in 1999 which labelled the Plaintiff a “Traveller Drug King.” In allowing the newspaper’s appeal, the court examined two main issues: the allegation that the Plaintiff was a drug dealer and the accusation that he was involved in money lending.
As the evidence “overwhelmingly pointed to the conclusion that the Plaintiff was, indeed a drug dealer,” Judge Hogan described the jury’s decision to award €900,000 as “perverse.” Accordingly, the court held that this element of the jury’s decision could not be allowed to stand as it would constitute an infringement on the newspaper’s constitutional right to publish true information. With regard to the money lending allegation, however, the court called for a retrial, indicating that in the absence of any substantive challenge to evidence adduced by several members of An Garda Síochána, the jury should have been instructed that this evidence necessarily carried “considerable weight”.
Ireland is the sole European jurisdiction where defamation cases are tried before a jury. Accordingly, the Court of Appeal’s condemnation of the jury’s award as “perverse” in this instance serves to highlight the inadequacies associated with this system. When the €900,000 award was originally made in 2008, National Newspapers Ireland submitted to the Joint Committee on the Constitution that awards of this magnitude cultivated a ““chilling” impact on freedom of expression” due to: “the availability of large damages, combined with the unpredictability of the system that leads to their assessment.” Similarly, while the 2009 Defamation Act has since afforded judges the authority to direct juries as to the extent of damages that may be awarded, it has been criticised for failing to prescribe an upper limit on awards.
It is unsurprising that the Court of Appeal’s decision to allow the newspaper’s appeal has been welcomed in the media as a victory for freedom of expression. In the absence of an upper limit to damages that can be awarded in defamation cases, however, this welcome has been a tentative one.