Full case report

Independent News & Media v Ireland

Reference (2006) 42 EHRR 1024
Court European Court of Human Rights

Judge Ress P & Cabral Barreto, Caflisch, Turmen, Zupanèiè, Hedigan & Traja JJ

Date of Judgment 16 Jun 2005


Summary

Defamation – Libel – Damages – Ireland – Safeguards against disproportionately high jury awards at first instance and on appeal – Article 10


Facts

Independent News and Media applied to the European Court of Human Rights for a ruling that the upholding of an exceptionally high damages award by the Irish Supreme Court and lack of adequate domestic safeguards against disproportionate jury awards violated its Article 10 rights. In the Irish High Court, the jury found that a politician had not been involved in or tolerated serious crime and that he had personally supported anti-Semitism and violent communist oppression and awarded IR£300,000. On appeal the media group argued that guidance should be given to juries on the purchasing power of awards, comparisons with other libel and PI awards ought to be permitted and the appeal court set itself the Rantzen Test (‘could a reasonable jury have thought this award was necessary to compensate the plaintiff?’) The Supreme Court upheld the award and ruled that Irish domestic law was in line with the Convention and that the libel was ‘serious and grave.’ One Judge dissented.


Issue

Whether the exceptionally high jury award was proportionate and the domestic safeguards against disproportionate awards were adequate, and, whether they both accorded with Article 10 of the Convention.


Held

Holding that there had been no violation of Article 10 (by 6 votes to 1), (1) As a preliminary point, the unusualness of the award – (three times more than any previously approved Irish libel award) – was sufficient to prompt a review of safeguards by the ECHR; (2) The trial judge’s directions to the jury on the issue of damages were adequate and the guidance rather more specific than in Tolstoy; (3) The nature of the Irish Supreme Court’s review was more robust than the appellate review at issue in Tolstoy as Irish law required jury awards in libel cases be proportionate, and this was given adequate weight by the Supreme Court. It was the lack of this requirement that had made the English Court of Appeal’s review ‘particularly open to question’ in the Tolstoy case; (4) The Supreme Court was able to remedy cases where insufficient guidance had been given at first instance and was able to assess the proportionality of an award.


Comment

The European Court of Human Rights has endorsed its own approach to safeguards against disproportionate libel awards as set out in Tolstoy and employed it as the yardstick against which guidance at first instance and on appellate review will be considered. Libel awards in England & Wales have already been tamed by the Court of Appeal and this ECHR case would make challenges based simply on award level even more difficult.


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