The Defamation Act, 2009 came into force on 1 January 2010, carrying out a long-awaited overhaul of the Irish law on defamation previously contained in the (now repealed) Defamation Act, 1961.
The Act provides a plaintiff with the opportunity to apply for an increased range of remedies where a defamatory statement has been published. Such remedies include declaratory, prohibition and correction orders. The new legislation also allows a plaintiff to seek relief via a fast track summary procedure.
Arguably one of the principle aims of the Act was to reset the balance between plaintiff and defendant in defamation litigation. Under the old regime, a defendant was unnecessarily, and at times unfairly, hampered and restricted in its defence of a defamation action. For example, High Court lodgements could not be made without admitting liability, judges could provide no meaningful directions to juries (which has led to lottery-type awards as seen above) and there was no preliminary judicial procedure to test whether the statement in dispute could reasonably be said to bear a defamatory meaning before cases proceeded to a full hearing.
Aside from the Act implementing provisions to deal with these ‘deficiencies’ in the law, the new legislation has increased the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court to €50,000; reduced the limitation period (within which a plaintiff can bring a defamation action) to one year (or such longer period not exceeding two years as the court may direct) and provided a defendant with a wider range of defences. In addition, and for the first time, there is now a statutory definition of a defamatory statement, namely “…a statement that tends to injure a person’s reputation in the eyes of reasonable members of society…” .
The Act is not without its criticism and failings. It contains what are arguably unworkable provisions concerning the publication of material deemed to be blasphemous and it does not adequately address potential defamation issues arising from internet broadcasts and online bulletin boards.