Judges say Irish authorities failed to protect properly free expression under European human rights law.
In its 15 June judgment in the case of Independent Newspapers (Ireland) Limited v. Ireland (application no. 28199/15) the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been:
a violation of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The applicant company is the publisher of the Irish daily newspaper, the Herald, previously known as the Evening Herald.
Just satisfaction (Article 41), the court held that Ireland was to pay the applicant EUR 20,000 in respect of costs and expenses. It did not award the applicant company any pecuniary or non-pecuniary damages.
In 2004, the Evening Herald published a series of articles about a public relations consultant, Ms L., reporting on rumours of an intimate relationship between her and a government minister.
The articles referred to rumours of an intimate relationship between Ms L. (who was married with two children) and a government minister, Mr C., and suggested that the awarding of the lucrative public contracts to Ms L. had been improper. The case became the subject of widespread media coverage.
Ms L. successfully sued the applicant company for defamation, and a jury awarded her
damages of 1,872,000 euros (reduced to 1,250,000 euros by the Supreme Court on appeal).
The applicant company complained to the European Court that the award had been excessive and had violated its right to freedom of expression.
Unreasonably high damages for defamation claims can have a chilling effect on freedom of expression, and therefore there must be adequate domestic safeguards so as to avoid disproportionate awards being granted.
The court found that the safeguards had not proved effective in this case. At first instance, this was because domestic law prevented the judge from giving the jury sufficiently specific instructions about an appropriate amount of damages for the libel.
On appeal, although the award had been overturned and replaced with a lower amount after a fresh assessment, the Supreme Court had not given sufficient explanations as to how the new amount had been calculated, and it had not addressed the domestic safeguard at first instance and, in that context, the strict limits on judicial guidance to juries.