British attorney urges Jamaica to adjust libel laws

BRITISH attorney Mark Stephens has suggested that Jamaican lawmakers further adjust the country’s libel laws in light of legislation passed last month by the United states which effectively allows them to ignore any libel judgements from Jamaica.

“That is going to result in a jurisprudential diplomatic incident,” Stephens told the Joint Select Committee of Parliament that is considering Jamaica’s defamation laws Wednesday during its meeting at Gordon House in Kingston. He said underlining the passing of the Speech Act, as it is called, was the identification by the Americans of as many as 20 flaws in Commonwealth Libel Law in their opinion.

“For those reasons they are declining to accept libel judgements from Commonwealth countries. (Which would mean) they are not prepared to enforce libel judgements from Jamaica (as well). The concern I have about that is that it means if you want an effective vindication as a Jamaican of something said about a Jamaican by an American media outlet, the only practical way to do that is to bring our libel laws closer to the system the Americans have so that they can take less exception,” Stephens told the Committee.

“To avoid that (jurisprudential diplomatic incident), it seems to me, particularly that we have a lot of American media outlets spewing information into Jamaican living rooms, it would perhaps behove us to think about bringing Jamaican libel law closer to American Libel law,” he added.

He said there were a number of technical improvements that could be made to the current legislation that would allow Jamaican libel Judgements to be enforceable in America.

“That to me would be a result because it means Jamaicans can vindicate their reputations in probably the biggest market they have outside the United Kingdom and Canada,” he noted.

The parliamentary group has been perusing the recommendations of the 12-member committee appointed by Prime Minister Bruce Golding in 2007 to review the slander and libel laws since 2009. That report was presented to the House of Representatives in April 2008.

In its report, the committee proposed that the distinction between slander and libel be abolished. It further suggested that the limitation period for an action of defamation be reduced to one year from the publication of the defamatory statement, down from the current six.

The joint-select committee had, however, settled for two years instead of one. But Wednesday Stephens suggested that the one year be kept, arguing that libel cases have to be brought quickly if they are going to be settled effectively.

“Most people have set up a Google Alert to alert them to anything that is said about them, so it is unlikely that two persons will not be aware of a libel that has been uttered about them. I would suggest whether two years is too long,” he said.

The Committee sat Wednesday for the first time since it last met in June last year. Attorney General and Justice Minister Senator Dorothy Lightbourne who is also the Committee Chair said one reason for the delay had been the committee’s desire to have an expert present to add further to the deliberations.

Defamation occurs when words or other matter containing an untrue allegation that is damaging to someone’s individual reputation are published to a third party. Libel occurs when such information is published in a permanent form, such as a newspaper or a book, and slander occurs when it is passing such as in a speech.

The present Libel and Slander Act became law in 1851. That law was amended and supplemented by the Defamation Act of 1961, with both of these laws being amended in 1963 and 1969. Our defamation law developed from the thinking of the English Middle Ages, when defamation was a criminal offence. The defamation laws were largely developed to protect the English nobles from criticism.

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