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Juries shouldn't put a price on defamation, says Press Council chief

Daithi O Ceallaigh pointed out that damages are sometimes far in excess of any misdemeanour committed by a publication.

Image: jury box image via Shutterstock

THE OUTGOING CHAIRPERSON of the Press Council has called for judges to decide damages for defamation cases, rather than allowing juries to do so.

Speaking at the launch of the council’s annual report, Daithi O Ceallaigh said sometimes damages awarded are “far in excess of any misdemeanour that might have been committed”.

“I have to say when I think of damages, I always think of what is the average wage of a working man and if you look at the average wage of a Luas driver, or the average wage of a painter, or average wage of a carpenter, you’re looking at somewhere between €25,000 and €50,000 a year before tax and before charges,” he said.

Whereas, you frequently see damages of €50,000, €60,000 , €70,000, which is equivalent in some cases to two years’ wages being awarded for misdemeanours that are not necessarily all that serious.

O Ceallagh suggested judges should decide damages, after a jury has made a decision on whether or not there has been a defamation in the case. A well-known libel case taken by Albert Reynolds in London, resulted in an award of just one penny by a judge in 1996, after the Sunday Times alleged he had lied to the Dáil and to his Cabinet.

In his speech, the outgoing chair also said he believes the websites of broadcasters, which are now publishing in their own right, should come under the remit of the Press Council.

The council’s annual report revealed a total of 278 complaints were made in 2015. The majority of the complaints, some 153 of them, were made about national newspapers, 29 referred to local papers and 11 were about online-only publications.

Read: Judge dismisses case after man bases slander claim on law that no longer exists>

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