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Abolishing juries in defamation cases would be a 'knee jerk reaction', TD claims 

Abolishing juries in High Court defamation cases would be a "knee jerk reaction", according to the the chair of a committee tasked with examining new laws.

The Oireachtas Justice Committee has gone against the Government in recommending that juries be retained in defamation cases.

However, the committee has recommended that a "serious harm test" be introduced, which could decrease the number of vexatious defamation claims filed, and that defamation “should only be actionable on proof of special damage”.

The committee's report says judges should decide what awards are handed down if a jury does find that a person or organisation has been defamed. It has also been recommended that consideration be given to setting the statute of limitations for defamation cases at two years.

The cross-party committee made 18 recommendations, including rolling out training to judges in relation to the hallmarks of a Slapp (Strategic lawsuit against public participation) case, so that they are better able to identify these cases when they present.

Newsbrands Ireland had argued that juries should be abolished for multiple reasons including that they led to greater legal costs, lengthier trials, and unpredictability as to the damages awarded in the event of defamation proceedings being successfully argued.

Committee chair James Lawless said: "We think getting rid of juries is kind of a knee-jerk quick reaction, and we think that it's not supported by evidence. We think that if there is a perceived delay in court cases being heard because of juries being required, the answer is not less juries, but more of them."

To help deal with the delays in progressing defamation actions, the report states that the potential to empanel juries for more weeks within a court term should be examined.

Citing a 2022 Supreme Court decision in Higgins v the Irish Aviation Authority, which set guideline amounts for awards of compensation in defamation actions, the report states "the Committee believes this will largely address the concerns expressed regarding inconsistencies in awards". Mr Lawless said:

The majority of defamation actions are from one private individual against another. The cases involving the media are a minority of cases overall. It's usually somebody suing someone else because of something that was said on social media, or online, or in a public meeting, or over the garden fence or at the supermarket checkout.

It was reported last year that RTÉ had been hit with 29 sets of defamation proceedings over the past six years and incurred more than €4.7m of costs on them at the time.

Irish Examiner editor Tom Fitzpatrick said: "Defamation laws in this country continue to prevent media organisations from publishing vital information that wouldn’t otherwise become public knowledge.

"The committee has made some welcome recommendations which would potentially deter vexatious cases, but has also backed existing laws which force huge legal costs and uncertainty onto the industry as the price of pursuing the truth.

“It is our hope that defamation legislation can be significantly improved following this report by further debate on its recommendations and speedy legislative reform."