A recent decision of the Court of Appeal overturned an award of €900,000 made in 2008 arising from a defamation action taken against the Sunday World. This case highlights the oversight of jury decisions required by our courts of appeal.
The Court of Appeal Decision
The newspaper article in question, published on 5 September 1999, was entitled “Traveller is new drug king”. The article linked the Plaintiff to a shipment of illegal drugs seized in Sligo. The jury found that the Sunday World had not proven the Plaintiff was a drug dealer or a loan shark and as a result, made the substantial award of damages.
Mr Justice Hogan in the Court of Appeal noted that if the evidence at trial clearly established that the Plaintiff was engaged in the alleged drug dealing and loan sharking activities, then it would be a verdict which “no reasonable jury could have come to”. The newspaper presented evidence at trial from nine members of An Garda Síochána (the Irish police). The Court placed much weight on the fact that very little of the newspaper’s evidence in support of the drug dealing allegation was actually challenged by the Plaintiff.
It went on to hold that the “evidence shows overwhelmingly that the plaintiff was, indeed, a drug dealer and the jury’s conclusion to the contrary was perverse and cannot be allowed to stand”. Mr Justice Hogan commented further that “If the allegation was correct, the newspaper had a constitutional right to publish this information by virtue of Article 40.6.1.i and that right cannot be compromised by a jury verdict which was, in essence, perverse”.
Sunday World editor Colm McGinty commented after the verdict that the case demonstrated “the total failure of the political system to deal with the complex defamation laws of Ireland which are outdated, overly complex and among the harshest in Europe” . However, the trial of this case was held before the Defamation Act 2009 came into force. Among other reforms, the 2009 Act now allows a judge in the High Court to give directions to the jury in the matter of damages. The Sunday World’s criticism may be directed towards the failure, as some might see it, of the legislature to impose an upper limit of damages.
We welcome the Court of Appeal decision as it shows the judiciary’s willingness to scrutinise jury decisions. This scrutiny is necessary if we are to correctly balance the right to a good name with reporting independence. However, the political question of whether to set an upper limit of defamation damages remains. Ireland’s lack of such a safeguard against excessive damages has reportedly  been challenged by The Independent Newspapers in their claim to the European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”) that the €1.25 million libel award to communications consultant Monica Leech had a “serious chilling effect” on freedom of expression . We await the ECtHR’s decision and the impact it may have on our national laws.