Stormont
Simon Hamilton said the NILC's report will give him an independent perspective for considerationReuters

Stormont's finance minister has refused to guarantee that he will change Northern Ireland's libel laws even if a government commissioned report into the legislation recommended such a move.

DUP MLA Simon Hamilton, who responded to a question in the Northern Ireland Assembly, said it was "foolhardy" to guarantee reforms to the province's defamation laws.

The comments came after Hamilton asked the Northern Ireland Law Commission (NILC) last year to examine whether the Defamation Act 2013, which applies to England and Wales, should be introduced (in whole or in part) to Northern Ireland.

The organisation's consultation was delayed after its parent body, the Department of Justice, "instructed" the NILC to halt the publication of its paper because of "severe" budget cuts.

The NILC has now published the consultation, which will close on 20 February, but the organisation is to shut on 31 March 2015.

"I would be foolhardy if I stood here and guaranteed anything, including legislation, on this," Hamilton said.

"However, the whole purpose of the review is to get an independent perspective and for us to consider that and see where the balance of the arguments are on the need to introduce legislation."

He added: "If the conclusion that I reach after studying the report is that there is a need for legislation, I will seek to bring that forward.

"Obviously, towards the end of an assembly term there is a rush to get legislation through and there is pressure on resources in terms of the legislative draftsmen, the time available in this house and the time that the committees have available.

"Certainly, if there is a need to do it, that is something that I certainly will pursue."

A source close to the situation previously told IBTimes UK that they were "unsure" about the prospect of a full and final report because of the short time between the closure of the NILC and the consultation deadline.

But Hamilton said he expects the commission to try to complete the analysis of responses and the final report by 31 March 2015.

"We are considering how the commission's resources can be maximised to help it to achieve that objective," the finance minister said.

"However, if it is not able to do so, it may be possible to retain the services of the lawyer leading the project for a further short period to allow for the completion of the review."

Hamilton also claimed, after being questioned over the issue by DUP MLA Peter Weir, that the contingency arrangements would boost the NILC's independence.

"My whole objective in asking the NILC to carry out a review of the law of defamation in Northern Ireland to determine whether there is a need to extend to here in full or in part the changes that were made to the law of defamation in England and Wales was that we needed an independent perspective on it," he said.

"We had views expressed by some in the legal profession, who may be considered to have a vested interest, and by some in the press and media, who may also be accused of having a vested interest. I thought it important to get an independent view.

"In short, the contingency arrangements that I am talking about are designed to advance rather than diminish the level of independence."

But Hamilton said his department would not be assuming any responsibility for the final stages of the review project.

"Rather, it is envisaged that the commission's lead lawyer, who has been carrying out the work on our behalf, will complete the final report and refer it back to the Department for consideration," the finance minister said.

Libel reform in the UK

The 2013 Defamation Act was hailed as a victory for "freedom of speech" campaigners as the legislation gave greater "public interest" coverage and offered more protection to people expressing their opinions.

The law also addressed the issue of "libel tourism", where foreigners would sue under "tough" defamation laws in England and Wales instead of other jurisdictions.

Notably, Russian business man Boris Berezovsky sued US magazine Forbes for libel in London in 2000.