Defamation Bill 2006 [Seanad]: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to have this opportunity to introduce the Defamation Bill 2006 to the House. This Bill comprehensively reforms the law on defamation and replaces the current legislation, which dates back to 1961. It provides a modern framework and gives statutory expression to developments in the jurisprudence of the Irish courts and elsewhere, including the European Court of Human Rights. While the road to reform has been slow and has taken a number of turns, the deliberative process and consultations have been intensive and productive.

A review of the legislation on defamation was conducted as far back as the early 1990s, which culminated in the publication of a final report by the Law Reform Commission in December 1991. The report contained more than 50 detailed proposals for reform in this area of the law. In 1996, the report of the Commission on the Newspaper Industry also made recommendations for changes in the law. In December 2001, the then Government approved the drafting of a Bill. Following on from that, the agreed programme for the Government formed in 2002 contained a commitment to legislation in this area. In September 2002, the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Michael McDowell, established a legal advisory group on defamation to report on the implications of this commitment.

Subsequent to the publication of the legal advisory group's report in June 2003, my Department conducted an intensive public consultation process on the report. This included a major conference in December 2003 that facilitated an exchange of views with a wide cross-section of interested parties. Extensive consultations were held with the Irish Press Industry Steering Committee, which brought together representatives of national and regional newspapers, as well as UK newspapers with Irish editions and periodical publishers.

The Bill that is before the House is largely the text that was presented to the Seanad in July 2006 by the then Minister, Michael McDowell. I took a close interest in the comments of Senators during the extensive debate on the Bill in the other House. I would welcome the same close scrutiny of this important and ground-breaking legislation by Members of the Dáil so we can get the balance right. In 2007, my predecessor undertook a short and focused process of consultation on the Defamation Bill and the Privacy Bill, which was published by the last Administration. The Government has decided to pursue the Defamation Bill at this time. I hasten to add that the Privacy Bill remains on the Seanad Order Paper, having been approved by the Cabinet.

I commend the recent decision of the Press Council of Ireland and the Office of the Press Ombudsman, which vindicated the right to privacy of a member of this House. The decision will be welcomed by all sides in the Oireachtas and beyond. The good start that has been made by the Press Council augurs well for the future. I welcome the fact the newspaper in question published the decision in a position of prominence, similar to the position in which the offending article was printed. Such an approach is required under the legislation before the House. I am pleased that this requirement has been observed by the newspaper concerned in this instance.

The current defamation legislation falls short in a number of ways. It is unhelpful to all concerned that an apology, which is often all that is required, cannot be made to an aggrieved person without it being taken as an admission of liability. Unlike in other civil actions, no lodgment can be made in court against a defamation action without admission of liability. It is clear that an insufficient range of remedies, other than damages, is available to an aggrieved person. It is unsatisfactory that there is an absence of clarity on the role of the court in giving directions about the level of awards, that plaintiffs do not have to swear affidavits about the nature of their complaints and that applicants are not compelled to take the stand for cross-examination. That defamation actions can be taken up to six years after the publication of the alleged libel has understandably been the subject of much complaint by media organisations. On the other hand, aggrieved people had no real practical alternatives to court proceedings, such as a complaints system based on a code of standards operated by the press, until the recent formation of the Press Council.

Existing legislation lags behind the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is not in line with developments in the jurisprudence in other jurisdictions on the appropriate balance between freedom of expression and protection of one's good name. The new provisions in the Bill will give plaintiffs a better sense of their rights under the law. New forms of remedy will be available to those interested in obtaining speedy redress when they have been defamed. The new legislation will provide greater clarity for publishers, help responsible publishers to avoid making defamatory statements and provide guidance about the limits of the various defences which are open to them.

The Bill supports the concept of an independent Press Council, which can be afforded statutory recognition by both Houses of the Oireachtas on foot of a motion by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, as long as it meets certain criteria set out in Schedule 2 to the Bill. A code of practice to which print media organisations can subscribe and adhere is a critical element of the independent regulation of the press. We now have such a code. It should not fall to me as Minister, or to the Government, to dictate the exact detail of a code of practice. However, Schedule 2 provides some guidance about the basic standards expected in such a code, in the public interest. The Press Council has made it clear that the code will be organic and will evolve as circumstances require.

I am concerned that some publications have yet to subscribe to the Press Council of Ireland. While I realise these are early days, I urge all media organisations and publications to attain membership of the council, for their own benefit as well as that of complainants. I encourage the early publication by the council of details of its membership to ensure full transparency. One of the primary benefits of a statutorily recognised press council, as provided for in this legislation, is that qualified privilege attaches to its reports and decisions, or those of a subsidiary body such as the Office of the Press Ombudsman which has been established by the council. Subscription to the Press Council and adherence to its code of practice by a publication will strengthen its entitlement to avail of the new statutory defence of reasonable publication on a matter of public interest in any court action. To avail of that defence, publications which choose not to join the Press Council, for whatever reason, will be required to have in place an equivalent fairness regime or to operate an equivalent and publicised code of standards.

The Bill puts on a statutory basis a new defence of fair and reasonable publication on a matter of public interest. I hasten to add that the defence is subject to certain conditions. It is designed to be used by newspapers which decided to publish certain material to facilitate public discussion, on the basis of there being a benefit and an interest in such discussion taking place. This new defence takes cognisance of jurisprudence at European Court of Human Rights level. In particular, it is based on certain decisions of Irish and UK courts. The genesis of the defence first arose in these islands in the decision made by the UK court of appeal in 2001 in the case of Reynolds v. The Sunday Times. In September 2006, the court refined and clarified its nature and purpose in the case of Jameel and others v. The Wall Street Journal Europe. The court overturned an award against that paper and allowed its defence of reasonable publication on a matter of public interest.

The UK court of appeal ruled in the Jameel case that the defence of reasonable publication is in a new jurisprudential category. It is not the same as a defence of privilege. A number of conditions have to be fulfilled before a responsible publication can plead reasonable publication. In the introduction to its judgment, the court noted that there is a balance between the development of this new defence and the strengthening of the law on privacy. The thrust of the Jameel case was accepted by Mr. Justice Charleton in his consideration of the 2007 case of Leech v. Independent Newspapers (Ireland) Limited.

This new defence is designed to facilitate responsible journalism. It is not a charter to engage in casual defamation or character assassination. It is not a licence for sloppy or vindictive practice by journalists or editors. It will be for the courts to decide what credence to give to an editor or a journalist who tries to cloak himself or herself in such a defence without proper regard for its purpose. Given that this is a significant change in our law, I will welcome the views of Deputies on the details of the defence. I will examine the matter further with the Attorney General in advance of Committee Stage.

The Bill makes special provision in relation to the issue of damages. It makes it clear that a judge in a High Court defamation action will give directions to the jury in relation to damages. It sets out a wide range of factors to which the court will have regard in awarding damages. It provides that the Supreme Court, on appeal, may substitute its own level of damages for that awarded by the High Court. These provisions have been developed against a background of recent case law in our courts. I suggest that they offer clarity and some certainty on policy in this area.

I wish to highlight some of the other main provisions of the Bill. Section 5 provides that the present torts of libel and slander will cease to be so described and will instead be collectively described as the "tort of defamation". Section 7 provides that the plaintiffs and defendants in a defamation action will be required to submit a sworn affidavit verifying assertions and allegations and to make themselves available for cross-examination. That is not necessarily the case at the moment, which is a strange aspect of our law. It is now being provided that a person must swear that he or she has been defamed and make himself or herself available for cross-examination, as a condition of bringing an action. I believe that is a reasonable position. It will be an offence for a person to make a statement in an affidavit which is false or misleading in any material respect, or that he or she knows to be false or misleading. This mirrors the approach taken in the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004.

Another aspect of the Bill, contained in section 22, is that an offer of apology will not be construed as an admission of liability. The current legal situation effectively precludes this and impedes the giving of a speedy apology which, in some cases at least, might result in a decision not to proceed with court action. With regard to apologies, the Bill provides, following amendment in the other House, that in situations where an apology is being made and published by a defendant, the apology will be given the same or similar prominence as was given to the original statement.

The Bill includes other useful provisions which I will outline. Under section 27, the defendant in defamation proceedings may in future lodge in court a sum of money without admission of liability. This mirrors the present position with regard to other civil actions where damages are sought.

Provision is made for new remedies which a court may grant in lieu of, or in addition to, damages. These remedies will, in the normal course, be predicated upon a plaintiff having requested a timely and conspicuous retraction of the defamatory matter in circumstances where the defendant has failed to accede to that request.

Under section 26, a declaratory order, for which a plaintiff may apply in lieu of damages, is intended to offer a speedy means of redress where the only issue is the wish of a plaintiff to have an acknowledgement that the matter in question was defamatory of him or her.

A correction order is envisaged, under section 28, as an additional remedy to declaratory judgments, as it allows the possibility of damages which may direct the terms of any correction that a court orders to be made in favour of a plaintiff.

A range of factors intended to guide the court in making an award of general damages is specified in section 29. Juries are being retained for High Court proceedings, but the trial judge shall give directions to a jury on the matter of damages. Aggravated and punitive damages are maintained under section 30, but are limited to specific instances.

The defences available in defamation proceedings are rationalised and clarified in sections 14 to 25, inclusive. A list of occasions where absolute privilege arises is provided in section 15. The defence of qualified privilege is given a statutory basis for the first time under section 16. It will attach to the reports and decisions of the Press Council recognised under section 41.

As I mentioned, under section 24, the defence of fair and reasonable publication on a matter of public interest is created in statute form for the first time in Ireland. The exact provisions concerning the recognition of an independent Press Council are set out in section 41.

The conditions with regard to the making of an offer of amends are updated in sections 20 and 21, along with the consequences for acceptance or non-acceptance of the offer.

Under section 25, the common law position with regard to the liability of distributors for defamatory material is being given a statutory basis known as "the defence of innocent publication". The defence develops in a more comprehensive way the common law defence of innocent publication, which has traditionally been available to distributors, in particular for those such as Internet service providers, in recognition of the speed with which modern technology works.

Under section 11, bodies corporate may sue for defamation irrespective of whether financial loss had occurred.

Under section 35, a limitation period of one year will apply to the bringing of defamation proceedings unless, where the interests of justice so require, a court directs otherwise and may allow a period of two years for exceptional cases.

A special jurisdiction limit of €50,000 for defamation actions in the Circuit Court is provided for in section 38. The current Circuit Court limit for damages claims is €38,092.

I am giving further consideration to Part 5 of the Bill, which provides for the abolition of the common law offences of criminal libel, seditious libel and obscene libel. It is my intention to bring forward amendments on Committee Stage to deal with the offences created in Article 40.6.1.i of the Constitution relating to the publishing of blasphemous, seditious or indecent matter. Sanctions for these offences, which include both fines and imprisonment, are contained in Part 2 of the Defamation Act 1961 and in other enactments.

If we repeal in full the provisions of the 1961 Act in reforming our defamation laws, we would be at risk of creating a lacuna, unless we make some provision in regard to the constitutional offences. Ensuring there is no lacuna created is therefore a significant consideration. My predecessor had been in consultation with the Attorney General as to how best to proceed in dealing with the issues and I intend to bring that consultation to fruition.

The Bill does not provide for defamation of the dead. The technical, legal difficulties of so providing were examined closely by the Law Reform Commission and others. This was also an issue which arose during the consultation period and during the course of the lengthy Seanad debate. Section 36 does, however, provide that on the death of a person, a cause of action for defamation vested in him or her immediately before death, should survive for the benefit of their estate. Similarly, it also provides that a cause of action in defamation subsisting against a person should survive their death and lie against their estate.

There are two important Schedules as part of the Bill. Schedule 1 provides a list of statements having qualified privilege. The list includes determinations or statements by the Press Council or Ombudsman. Schedule 2 provides for the minimum requirements concerning a body seeking recognition as the Press Council for the purposes of the Act. The Minister will have to satisfy himself or herself that these criteria are being met prior to making an order declaring the applicant organisation to be the Press Council for the purposes of the Act. Once recognition is granted, there can be only one such body. An order of recognition granted to the Press Council may be amended or revoked, should the Minister form the opinion that the council no longer meets the minimum requirements set out in Schedule 2. However, in that event, before the moving of any order to this effect, the Press Council must be afforded the opportunity to address the issues of concern. The Schedule also prescribes minimum conditions for the appointment of a Press Ombudsman who will investigate, hear and determine complaints made to the Press Council concerning the conduct of its members and the complaints procedure. The Schedule also prescribes the code of standards to be adhered to, as well as the rules and practices to be complied with by members of the Press Council.

This Bill will bring about a significant modernisation of the law on defamation. It seeks to respect the necessary balance between the equally important but sometimes competing rights of freedom of expression and of respect for one's good name and reputation. I would welcome the contributions of all sides of the House on this matter. I will be willing to consider any reasonable amendments that may be suggested by all sides of the House. The Bill represents a significant change in our defamation laws. As such, the House should take some time to consider it, particularly in view of the fact that it has undergone a robust examination of various aspects by Members of the Upper House.

I commend the Bill to the House.

I wish to acknowledge the recent appointment of the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I wish him every success in his new portfolio. I also pay tribute to his predecessor, Deputy Brian Lenihan, and thank him for his personal courtesy to me as Opposition spokesman. I recognise the previous Minister's work in the Department, albeit over a short period. It is a long time since the new Minister and I were Government and Opposition Whips, respectively. Since then, the Minister has dealt with a number of important issues in various Departments. I wish him well in his new role. Fine Gael will offer him co-operation on matters which should be prioritised in the areas of justice, security, law reform and equality. It is a large Department and perhaps nobody knows better than the Opposition spokesman the wide range of briefs concerned, which can be both time consuming and taxing.

As a fresh face in the Department, perhaps the Minister could consider, along with his Government colleagues, restoring or building on the civil and criminal justice arms of the Department. In the 1990s, the civil arm was separated into the equality and law reform portfolio, while the criminal arm deals with matters of domestic security. The Department has a wide brief with major responsibilities. I consider that the experiment in the 1990s worked reasonably well, albeit that a small Department was being serviced at the time under the direction of the former Minister, Mervyn Taylor. That concept might be revisited, especially in view of what other jurisdictions have done in separating the various sections of their departments of justice. I look forward to debating the issues of concern and the challenges that lie ahead in the Department, and I wish the Minister well.

Fine Gael supports this Bill. For some time we have been calling for appropriate changes and amendments to be made to defamation law. We acknowledge the important role of the media as the Fourth Estate in a democracy. It is important that a country has a vibrant and free media as free speech is an important fundamental pillar of democracy. What we must always try to do is strike a balance between the right of an individual to his or her good name and the right to report in a free and unfettered manner. It is a long time since 1961 so it is important to revisit the legislation and modernise the laws dealing with slander, libel and the various defences to them. A considerable body of case law has built up in this area and it is necessary to codify that law in one legislative measure, particularly with regard to the defences to an action. That legislation is now before the House.

A number of recent cases, particularly cases involving a late former Member of this House and a widely read Sunday newspaper, showed up deficiencies in the current legislation. Often, all that is required is an apology and, in some cases, only a simple apology but that cannot be done under the current legislation because it is connected to an admission of liability. That will change under this Bill. Similarly, unlike in the case of other civil actions, no lodgement can be made in court against a defamation action without it including an admission of liability. That has given rise to an adversarial stand-off between parties, with no resolution taking place until a court hearing, which might not occur until a number of years after the initial publication.

It is also important that the range of remedies would expand and develop beyond mere damages. I welcome the proposals regarding rectification, clarification, declaratory orders and the other remedies excluding monetary compensation. There is also a need for clarity in respect of the role of the court in giving directions on the level of awards. This area has been something of a lottery in that it has not been possible to measure the damages in any consistent way. That has given rise to confusion and uncertainty, so the giving of directions on the level of awards is welcome. Similarly, at present the applicant or plaintiff or aggrieved party does not have the opportunity to submit sworn affidavits to corroborate their complaint. That will change, which is welcome. Perhaps the reading of such affidavits could give rise to earlier settlements than might otherwise be the case, as it will be possible to see from the affidavits the points of concern that remain at issue. Furthermore, the plaintiff or applicant will be in a position to take the stand for cross-examination, which they cannot be compelled to do under current legislation.

The issue of time is important. The Press Council and the Press Ombudsman have spoken of the need for a swift response. This is most important. Currently, defamation actions in the High Court, where most defamation cases are taken, take up to six years to be heard. That is unacceptable when time is of the essence. There is a direct and clear link between the publication of the offending item and the hurt, grievance and damage caused. To allow a time lapse of four to six years in resolving the issue is in nobody's interest and certainly not in the interest of the applicant or aggrieved party.

Currently, there is no provision in the law for a defence of reasonable publication, which is a weakness. I am delighted with the range of defences outlined in reasonably clear terms in section 14 of this Bill. I noted the Minister's comments on the defence of reasonable publication and I look forward to dealing with that in detail on Committee Stage. The Bill seeks to address many of the current deficiencies in the law with varying degrees of success. There was a considerable amount of debate on the Bill in the Seanad before its reading on Second Stage today.

The new complaints procedure is welcome. I assume that anybody can make a complaint and that it is not necessary to have an immediate, first party interest in the matter. I presume it is open to any member of the community at any time to make a complaint on a matter about which they feel aggrieved and that it is not necessary for that person to have an interest in or have been mentioned in the publication. Indeed, the Press Ombudsman said on his appointment that the remedy he envisages would be free, fair and quick. These elements are of great importance. I welcome the defences set out in Part 3.

There was a long period of public debate before the introduction of this Bill. That was welcome even if the legislation was delayed in that time. The Law Reform Commission report was published in December 1991. It contained 59 detailed proposals for reform. A draft defamation Bill was commissioned by the National Newspapers of Ireland in 1994, while a Private Members' Bill was introduced by the former Deputy, Michael McDowell, in the mid-1990s. In 1996, there were further recommendations for reform from the Commission on the Newspaper Industry. The Government approved the draft Bill in December 2001 and in the following year the then Minister, former Deputy Michael McDowell, established an advisory group on defamation. The 2002 programme for Government contained a commitment that the Government would, in the context of a statutory press council and improved privacy laws, move to implement reforms of the libel law designed to bring it into line with that of other states. The former Minister, former Deputy Michael McDowell, said in the Seanad that the Bill delivers on the commitment in that programme. However, that was six years ago.

In 2003, on foot of the recommendations of the advisory group, the former Minister initiated public consultation, including a major conference in December 2003, and three years later, in 2006, the Irish press industry steering committee published its proposals for an independent press council, press ombudsman and a code of practice or standards, much of which is incorporated in this legislation. It has taken this Bill some time to reach the Dáil. It lapsed with the dissolution of the 29th Dáil and was reintroduced in the 30th Dáil on Committee Stage. That decision caused some disquiet and annoyance to newly elected Senators who were most anxious to make their contribution to the Bill on Second Stage because they, quite rightly, took the view this was important legislation. I hope that in the course of this debate, whether on Second Stage or Committee Stage, every Deputy will have an opportunity of airing his or her views and dealing with this matter in a comprehensive way.

I am delighted the Bill has eventually made its way to the floor of the Dáil, and welcome the opportunity to make a contribution. The media has long called for legislation in this area to ensure clarity and provide alternatives to court proceedings by way of remedy. While the Government was engaged in the public consultation process, and the draft Bills were being processed into what is before us, the media industry proceeded to take action and established and agreed to fund the offices of the Press Ombudsman and the Press Council. The willingness by the media to step into the breach created by a certain inaction on the part of Government is commendable and shows a commitment to fairness and fair play. This willingness to engage is a source of great importance. Dr. John Horgan, the recently appointed Press Ombudsman, served in this House for many years and is doing a commendable job in his current post. I wish him well, as I am sure every Member of the House does. Without wishing to comment on individual cases, it is important to note the recent decision by the Press Ombudsman's office as regards a complaint made by a Member of this House which was upheld by the Press Council. That was widely welcomed not only by politicians, but also by media people and journalists. That is indicative of a good, positive start to that highly onerous and important position and office. Dr. Horgan has noted that the job of the Press Council and Press Ombudsman will remain as a work in progress for some time. That is helpful, because it reflects his experience as a journalist, and as someone who was frequently written about in his earlier career as a practising politician. It is interesting that the council has a lay majority. That is important, and the code of practice prepared by a press industry committee appears to be based on very sound principles. However, it refers to the print media only, and it is important there should be some parallel for the broadcasting sector.

There are ten fundamental principles attached to the code of practice, all of which are soundly based: truth and accuracy, distinguishing fact and comment, fairness and honesty, respect for rights, privacy, protection of sources, fairness and accuracy in court reporting, prevention of incitement to hatred, protection of children and the willingness to publish the decision of the Press Ombudsman, if requested to so do. These principles are very good and I also welcome the element of flexibility adopted by the Press Council which allows the code of practice to be routinely reviewed, amended and added to if necessary. An appropriate committee of this House should have the opportunity from time to time of officially participating in that debate and playing its part in these reviews, if necessary. The code of practice forms the basis for decision making by the Press Ombudsman and the Press Council. I must acknowledge the huge amount of work that went into the formulation of the code, which appears to incorporate best practice not only from Great Britain, but also Australia, Germany and the United States inter alia. The principles are founded on best international practice. It is open to any member of the public to complain about any article in an Irish newspaper, magazine or periodical which he or she believes is in breach of the code. Perhaps there may be some outstanding work to be done in publicising the code’s existence. Many people are not yet familiar, I believe, with the Office of the Press Ombudsman, his identity or indeed the Press Council, and an information campaign should be undertaken to inform the public in this regard so that a higher level of activity may be generated and the public can be offered the element of redress that is of such absolute importance. As Dr. Horgan said, the object of the exercise is to provide remedies that are quick, free and fair.

There may, however, be a stumbling block in so far as the current subscription to the Press Council's code of practice is voluntary. When introducing this Bill in its previous incarnation, the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Michael McDowell, stated that non-members of the Press Council would be required to have an equivalent and published code of standards to benefit from the Bill's provisions in respect of "reasonable publication".

The Minister made reference to a number of publications that have not yet signed up, and I wonder whether he might provide information as regards what percentage of publications have chosen to date to remain outside the Press Council mandate. Have most joined up or are many still waiting to participate? Have alternative codes been established by non-members of the Press Council? It is important to have one code acceptable to all rather than a variety of different codes and guidelines.

Again, as regards the Press Council, in 2003 the legal advisory group reporting to former Deputy McDowell recommended its creation. He chose to ignore the recommendation at the time and seemed less than certain as regards whether this decision was right. However, as the Bill provides, the Minister may change his or her mind in future, and put the Press Council on a statutory footing. I should like to hear the views of the new Minister as to whether that option will be exercised and the council placed on a statutory footing. I am confident, however, that it will carry out its role in a fair and expedient manner under the stewardship of its current chairman, the eminent Professor Thomas Mitchell, who brings great experience and expertise to that position. If one wanted a chairman who was truly independent, one must agree he was a great choice, and I wish him well.

It is important that the council should be guaranteed its funding and the Government has a role in ensuring it is properly resourced. The question of the source of funding might be a different matter, but it is important that it is properly resourced. There is the question of the sanctions that are available to the council, an area we may return to at a later stage.

As regards the current Bill and the matter of damages, I welcome these provisions. The media has long made a fair point that the absence of clarity in this regard is somewhat unfair. There are no guidelines, directions or consistency and a proper balance is struck in allowing the judge to give directions to a jury as regards damages. Indeed, the definition and clarity as regards what factors should be taken into account in this context are important. I note special dispensation is being given to the Circuit Court to allow for an increased level of damages from the current level of approximately €38,000 to €50,000. In the broader civil law area, the Minister should consider increasing the ceiling level of the Circuit Court jurisdiction to accord with what is intended in the Bill to allow for a claim not exceeding a sum of €50,000 having regard to inflationary matters related to the consumer price index, etc. In recent times people have taken defamation actions in the Circuit Court for no other reason than the speed with which matters can either be settled or brought to a head. There is a difficulty. It is reasonable comment that one cannot justifiably put a ceiling on one's reputation.

Much has been written about the insistence of some members of the Cabinet that a Privacy Bill be introduced in tandem with this Bill, when this matter was discussed in another arena in public. The new Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, who is before us, is on record as saying that he was one of those who favoured the introduction of both Bills, while his immediate predecessor, now Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, said he would rather ascertain how the Press Council carried out its work and affairs before deciding on whether to proceed with the Privacy Bill. The Minister has acknowledged the birth of the Privacy Bill which is currently parked in the Seanad — a term used by his predecessor. The Minister has said it is in the Seanad. When concluding Second Stage, I ask the Minister to outline whether he shares the views of his predecessor or is he still of the view, as were many of his Fianna Fáil ministerial colleagues, that the Privacy Bill is both necessary and desirable. It appeared clear that the hand of the former Minister, Mr. Michael McDowell, was forced by his majority Fianna Fáil colleagues. While I am not sure about the benefits or otherwise of the Privacy Bill, it is important that the matter of its limbo status be clarified before we reach the concluding Stages of this Bill.

I accept that the Press Council of Ireland has only been in a position to take complaints since 1 January and just over four months is not sufficient time for a full and fair assessment. I am anxious to hear the views of the new Minister in this regard. While we are not debating the Privacy Bill, suffice it to say that the restrictive nature of the Bill in its current form would give rise to concern for my party. I share the views of the former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Brian Lenihan, that we should give the new measures a chance before considering whether there is a need to proceed with the privacy legislation. After all, we have the Press Council of Ireland and the Press Ombudsman. If we have faith in the Bill before us it is probably reasonable to give it a chance before proceeding with further legislation. I do not believe the matter can remain uncertain or in limbo for too long.

A number of amendments were made in the Seanad. From reviewing the Seanad debate it is clear that much work on the Bill took place in that House and some important amendments were not only discussed but also agreed. One of the more interesting amendments accepted requires that the apology by the media should be given the same or similar prominence to the original offensive article. I believe that measure will be universally accepted as being fair and efficient towards addressing the complaints of people feeling aggrieved or defamed. It was totally unsatisfactory to have an offending article on page 1 and a referred apology some weeks later that might be hidden in the corner of the sports' pages. That is of fundamental importance and I welcome the acceptance by the Minister of amendments in that regard.

The Minister mentioned the abolition of the criminal, obscene and seditious libel. I note the provisions in the Bill to abolish these common law offences and to make defamation purely a civil matter, which has been broadly welcomed. Welcome was given for the prohibition of jailing journalists. The abolition of the criminal libel will probably ensure that this would be the case. The Minister said he would refer aspects of Part 5 to the Attorney General. I hope this matter can be clarified in advance of Committee Stage because there are issues of importance, including the constitutional issues mentioned by the Minister. I ask the Minister to keep the House informed of his intentions in that regard. We should have a considerable time between the completion of Second Stage and the introduction of Government amendments, particularly those relating to Part 5.

I very much welcome the provisions in the Bill allowing a cause of action in defamation cases to survive the death of the parties involved. This is a most difficult and sensitive issue that has been a source of serious concern to families of people who have themselves suffered because matters were not sufficiently clarified, brought to a head or dealt with before the death of a party who had a grievance or complaint. There are aspects of this that we should refer to on Committee Stage, as I am sure we will.

I welcome the Bill and I again welcome the Minister on his first day in the Department. The Bill is overdue. Notwithstanding the delay, there has been a high degree of public debate of the important issues involved. I look forward to further examination of the provisions of this legislation on Committee Stage.

On my own behalf I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. I am not my party's spokesperson on justice; I am standing in for Deputy Rabbitte. In a general sense I welcome the legislation. As it does not come under my brief, I would not be as familiar as the spokespersons would be. I briefly spoke on it when it was debated in the Seanad. At the time it was pretty well held up by a very long drawn-out debate between the then Minister, Mr. Michael McDowell, and Senator Norris. At the time I wondered whether it would ever come to this House. Anyway it is good to see it here. It is good to get the legislation on the Statute Book to bring some clarity to the area of defamation. In that sense, the Labour Party has always been positive about this legislation. Former Senator Kathleen O'Meara spoke at length on the legislation, as has Senator Alex White. In general they would have supported the legislation.

Obviously, the Labour Party supports the freedom of expression of the press, which is very important for a democratic society. At the same time, we need to balance that need with responsible coverage by the press which should show respect for the dignity of the person. Coverage should be respectful of people because their reputation is very important. It is only right that if a person's reputation is unfairly tarnished, he or she should have recourse to have the coverage concerned addressed. In many areas, particularly regarding defamation, the best way to have a grievance addressed is not in an adversarial way but through negotiation and mediation. I welcome the new position of Press Ombudsman.

Debate adjourned.