The Law Reform Commission has published an Issues Paper on Privilege for Reports of Court Proceedings under the Defamation Act 2009. The Paper examines and make recommendations on whether changes should be made to the Defamation Act 2009 relating to absolute privilege for reports of court proceedings. Section 17 of the Defamation Act 2009 currently provides that there is absolute privilege (i.e. complete immunity) from a defamation action where the claim is about a “fair and accurate report of proceedings” heard in any court in Ireland, Northern Ireland, or certain European and international courts.
The Commission notes that the proliferation of electronic platforms and tools has made it significantly easier for ordinary members of the public, as well as professional journalists, to publish reports of court proceedings. In Philpott v Irish Examiner Ltd  IEHC 62, the Irish High Court held that a “fair and accurate” report of proceedings could include a summary of proceedings, that it need not be verbatim, and that such summarised reports could still attract absolute privilege, provided they did not contain substantial inaccuracies and were generally fair. The decision makes it clear that “fair and accurate” reports in blogs or on social media are covered by absolute privilege.
The issues paper seeks views on four issues relating to privilege for reports of court proceedings:
- Issue 1 examines the meaning of a “fair and accurate” report of court proceedings. The Commission asks whether the current interpretation of “fair and accurate” under section 17 of the Defamation Act 2009 is sufficiently clear, taking account of the guidance given by the High Court in Philpott v Irish Examiner Ltd.
- Issue 2 examines the scope of the absolute privilege for a “fair and accurate” report of proceedings in court. The Commission seeks views on whether it should remain the case that the “fair and accurate” absolute privilege is available to both professional journalists and to others such as bloggers or “citizen journalists”. The Commission also asks whether the existing law should be reformed to restrict absolute privilege to a limited group of prescribed persons, and whether it should be similar to the position that applies to reporting family law and child care proceedings, which are limited to “bona fide members of the press” and other specified persons carrying out research on the courts.
- Issue 3 seeks the views of consultees on the merits of introducing a new qualified privilege for reports of court proceedings that would apply where the report did not meet the “fair and accurate” standard in the 2009 Act (perhaps due to having to meet a strict publication deadline), and which would apply provided that no malice was established.
- Issue 4 asks whether there should be a requirement to obtain leave from the Court for any proposed new qualified privilege, and to demonstrate on affidavit the malice alleged. The current law requires both parties to swear an affidavit verifying their allegations, and the Paper asks whether this provides sufficient protection against unfounded defamation claims.
The Law Reform Commission is welcoming submissions by close of business on Friday 26 October 2018.