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Defamation Bill set to continue unopposed

12 Dec 2014

Prof John Crown

A Defamation (Amendment) Bill brought before the Seanad by Senator Prof John Crown was due to move to Committee Stage on Tuesday (December 9), after the Government decided last week not to oppose the Private Members’ Bill aimed at tackling unwarranted curbs on freedom of expression.

Prof Crown was prompted to draw up the legislation — an attempt to “de-fang” public bodies from inappropriately using the threat of defamation to prevent valid public criticism — following an article by IMT columnist Dr Ruairi Hanley in the Irish Independent, in which he criticised the HSE’s handling of the discretionary medical card issue.

“Dr Hanley wrote an article in which he suggested that the HSE was terrifying medical card holders with the prospect of their medical card being withdrawn. He received from the HSE’s public relations department a reply that dealt not only with the substance of the issue but also with its view that he made charges with which the HSE disagreed. As a consequence it threatened him with unspecified other actions in defence of the good name of the HSE,” explained Senator Crown.

“In the area of public policy, we need to be able to criticise the public bodies. We need to be able to criticise and challenge those who work in those bodies to defend the bodies on their track record, not on some vague abstract such as the good name of the organisation,” he added.

At the heart of the proposed Bill is the plan to limit the damages public bodies would be able to claim to a nominal €1.

While Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality Aodhán Ó Ríordáin indicated the Government “does not intend to oppose” the Bill, he said Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald considered the legislation as drafted to be “deficient and would require extensive further examination and amendment”.

Minister Ó Ríordáin said Section 5 of the 2009 Defamation Act already provided for a statutory review of the Act’s operation, to be commenced within five years and to be completed within a year. “Preparations for this statutory review have already begun within the Department of Justice and Equality,” he said

The Minister believed the issue raised in Prof Crown’s Bill was just one piece of a large and complex jigsaw, hence it would be “unwise to treat it in isolation”, particularly outside the context of the imminent statutory review.

He added substantial amendment of the Bill would be required and proposed by the Government on Committee Stage.

Dara Gantly

Click here to view the full article which appeared in Irish Medical Times