Does media law differ in Northern Ireland from England and Wales?

How is the law in Northern Ireland the same as in England and Wales?

  • Not just in terms of media law, but broadly speaking the law, including the courts structure, in Northern Ireland is surprisingly similar to that of England and Wales. Scotland, for example, has its own legal system with fundamental differences protected by the Act of Union. Orders made by the Secretary of State (rather than Acts of Parliament) are the means by which laws applicable in England and Wales also apply to Northern Ireland.

  • Northern Ireland’s High Court freely cites English cases in important media cases, demonstrating the links between the media law in both areas. In terms of civil and criminal cases in Northern Ireland, the Supreme Court (formerly, The House of Lords) is the final and authoritative court of appeal.

  • The most important topics of media law in Northern Ireland are: defamation, contempt of court and reporting restrictions (preliminary hearings, Crown courts, juveniles in court, domestic proceedings, sexual offences, identifying jurors).

What are the laws on defamation in Northern Ireland?

  • The Defamation Act (Northern Ireland) 1955 is an identical Act to the Defamation Act 1952 which applies to the rest of the United Kingdom. There are two sections of the Defamation Act 1955 which are still in force (otherwise refer to the Defamation Act 1996). These are section 5 – failure to prove every allegation of fact in the defences of justification – and section 6 – fair comment (a defence to a libel action in which the defendant does not have to show the words were fair but he/she must show that they were honest and published without malice.)

What are the laws on contempt of court in Northern Ireland?

  • The Contempt of Court Act 1981 applies to Northern Ireland as well as to the rest of the United Kingdom.High Court decisions in London are applicable and cited in courts there.

  • ‘Diplock courts’, in which a judge alone would try the cases of terrorists charged with scheduled offences, were introduced to lessen prejudice in the proceedings and so the risk of contempt of court. However, the effect of other people’s beliefs on witnesses in these special courts cannot always be accounted for.

What are the reporting restrictions in place in Northern Ireland?

  • The Judicial Studies Board for Northern Ireland, chaired by Lord Justice Higgins, issued guidelines to courts on reporting restrictions in 2008. The Board urged courts to exercise their discretion in instances where the media would make representations requesting discretionary reporting restrictions.

  • With regards to preliminary hearings, such proceedings must be in open court unless it is found that justice would not properly be served if reports of part or all of a hearing were published. The publication of a report of any opening statement made by the prosecution is prohibited under the Magistrates’ Courts (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 and while there is no blanket ban on reporting evidence, a court may prohibit such reporting if it believes this will influence the outcome of the trial. This includes instances when objection is taken to the evidence being admitted.

  • Under the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2004, restrictions on reporting prosecution appeals against a judge’s termination of a trial or an acquittal were extended to Northern Ireland (from the Criminal Justice Act 2003). In 1995, it was found by the Court of Appeal in Belfast that plea bargaining submissions held in open court could prejudice, rather than serve, the interests of justice.

  • In regards to domestic proceedings, the court has the power to sit in private when exercising any power under the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. As in England and Wales, reporters are permitted to attend domestic proceedings but subsequent reports must be confined to four specific points.

  • The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992 and the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 1994 provides anonymity in media reports for victims and alleged victims of sexual offences (and incest under the Punishment of Incest Act 1908) and is almost identical to as in England and Wales.

  • In Northern Ireland, it is an offence to identify a person as being, or having been, a juror or as being listed or selected for a jury list as detailed in the Juries (Northern Ireland) Order 1996.

What are the laws regarding juveniles in court in Northern Ireland?

  • There are a number of differences relating to juveniles in court in Northern Ireland. Firstly, any child under 10 years old cannot be charged with a criminal offence. For children aged 10 to 18 years old, youth courts set up in 1999 deal with offences committed by this age group.

  • In terms of reporting restrictions on juveniles, it is an offence to publish the name, address, school or other particulars likely to lead to identification, of anyone under 18 involved in an adult court or youth court proceedings (including appeals) as a defendant, witness or party under the Criminal Justice (Children) (Northern Ireland) Order 1998. It is a further offence to publish the picture of anyone under 18 involved in court or youth court proceedings. In the case of a convicted young offender, the court may find that it is in the public interest to lift any of these restrictions but this must follow representations on the matter from all concerned parties.

  • In any criminal proceedings, if the evidence of a child is reasonably likely to include indecent or immoral content then a court can, under the 1998 Order, exclude any person not involved with the case. Unlike in England and Wales in which there is a provision for the press to remain, under the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, there is no such provision in Northern Ireland.