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Independent Newspapers appeal over Monica Leech €1.2 million award upheld by European court

The judgement was given by a chamber of seven judges.

Image: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

THE EUROPEAN COURT of Human Rights has upheld an appeal by Independent Newspapers against a €1.2 million award in the Monica Leech libel case.

The public relations consultant sued Independent Newspapers over a series of Evening Herald articles in 2004 which claimed Leech got public contracts because she was having an affair with the then Environment Minister Martin Cullen.

Leech was awarded €1.8 million by a high court jury in 2009, that was later reduced to €1.2 million by the Supreme Court on appeal.

Independent Newspapers 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 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 judgement was given by a chamber of seven judges.

Domestic safeguards 

While the court accepted that the defamation of Leech had been a very serious one, it was the amount of damages awarded that was the basis for the complaint.

The issue for the court was therefore whether there had been adequate domestic safeguards to prevent the granting of a disproportionate award.

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The court found that the safeguards had not proved effective in this case.

In the first instance, 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.

Both sides now have three months within which they can ask for the case to be referred to the Grand Chamber of the ECHR for a final ruling. If that doesn’t happen, today’s judgment will become final in three months’ time.

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