The award last week by a High Court jury of record damages in excess of €1.87 million to Ms. Monica Leech in her libel action against Independent Newspapers (IRL) Ltd has raised once more the controversial issue as to whether juries should be given guidance in deciding upon the appropriate quantum of damages. The defendant newspaper group are appealing to the Supreme Court against the award.
As the law currently stands, a judge is not permitted to direct a jury in regard to damages*. The Defamation Bill 2006, however, proposes to change this. It provides that a judge can direct a jury in relation to damages, but does not specify the nature of such directions. It sets out a range of factors to which the court shall have regard to in making an award of general damages. It also gives the defendant the opportunity, with the leave of the court, to make submissions for the purposes of mitigating damages.
The Defamation Bill further proposes to raise the Circuit Court jurisdiction in defamation actions from €38,000 maximum damages to €50,000 in defamation actions. This might increase the number of defamation actions brought in the Circuit Court, which has a non-jury procedure and is accordingly less costly for parties than High Court defamation proceedings.
The passage of the Defamation Bill through the Oireachtas has been extremely slow however the latest indications are that it is to be enacted before the Dail rises for the summer recess on the 10th July next. It will be interesting to see whether the Defamation Bill as enacted brings statutory clarification in regard to jury directions concerning the matter of quantum of damages in defamation actions.
* The position at Irish law is set out by the Supreme Court in Barrett v Independent Newspapers  I.R. 13, which confirmed that the question of quantum of damages is exclusively within the discretion of the jury.