Leech -v- Independent Newspapers (Ireland) Ltd, [2007] IEHC 223 (2007)

Docket Number:2005 513P
Party Name:Leech, Independent Newspapers (Ireland) Ltd
Judge:Charleton J.
 
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An Árd-Chúirt

The High Court Record number 2005, number 513P

Between

Monica Leech, Plaintiff

And

Independent Newspapers (Ireland) Ltd, Defendant

The plaintiff sued the defendant newspaper for damages for a news article published on the 17th December, 2004. That article reported on an incident during a live radio call-in programme the day before, where a caller unexpectedly broadcast an allegation of improper conduct between the plaintiff, a communications consultant, and a government minister, claiming that the work that the plaintiff was being paid to do for the minister and the relevant department arose out of this improper conduct. Two rulings were given during the course of the trial.

First set of issues before the court: did a defence of public interest exist in defamation proceedings; if so, how was it to be defined; could such a defence be raised in the context of this case; should such a defence be particularised when pleaded; if neither pleaded or subject to a notice for particulars, should counsel for the defendant be required during the trial to outline particulars prior to cross-examining the plaintiff.

Judgment of Mr. Justice Charleton given on the 27th day of June, 2007 (Ruling in the course of a trial)

My ruling on this, I think, should be given straightaway, because the jury is waiting and the parties are anxious to proceed with the case and that is the right position to adopt in those circumstances.

There are a number of issues I have to decide, but the first thing that I want to say is that I am dealing with an application that is very, very early on in the course of the case where I have not heard a screed of evidence. And secondly, I am dealing with an application in circumstances where my view at the moment, subject to any legal argument in the future, is that it is not up to me to decide this case. I have to step back, ensure that the trial is conducted properly and allow the jury to decide this case as to its facts.

Is there such a thing as a public interest defence? In my view, there is. The test as to qualified privilege involves a situation where a party has an interest in receiving information and another party has a duty to pass that information on to them. The classic case, which is often repeated in many of the textbooks, is that one has visitors to one's house, or one's business, and one knows that one's employee has a dubious reputation and one comes to the conclusion, perhaps wrongly, that he or she may steal and so the person informs his or her guests that the employee is a thief. Now, as it turns out, the information you have as to a dubious reputation is incorrect, the employee is not a thief and he or she takes a defamation action against you in relation to what you have said. In those circumstances, because you have a duty in protecting those who come into your home, or into your business premises, and because your guests have an interest in relation to receiving that information with a view to their own protection, a situation of privilege arises.

In Reynolds v Sunday Times Newspapers [2002] 2 AC 127 HL, that was developed so that an issue arose as to whether there was such a thing as a general interest in the public in favour of them receiving information, albeit incorrect. And it seems to me that, yes, there is. The public have an interest in many matters, as opposed merely to being interested in matters. Being interested in matters, it seems to me, would refer to matters which are merely titillating or salacious or gossipy. Matters which are of public interest, on the other hand, have to be matters which affect the public in terms of the governance of the country, their safety, their security, and their right to judge their public representatives fairly on the basis of real information. That is not an exhaustive list. I could not possibly formulate an exhaustive list, even if I had time to reserve judgment in this case. In Reynolds, a number of tests were set out by Lord Nichols, which tests are helpfully set out at paragraph 14.83 of Gatley on Libel and Slander (10th edition, London, 2004). These are:

  1. The seriousness of the allegation. The more serious the charge, the more the public is misinformed and the individual harmed, if the allegation is not true.

  2. The nature of the information, and the extent to which the subject-matter is a matter of public concern.

  3. The source of the information. Some informants have no direct knowledge of the events. Some have their own axes to grind, or are being paid for their stories.

  4. The steps taken to verify the information.

  5. ...

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