The Need for Speed - Analysing the time limit for defamation cases

Irish defamation claims must be brought quickly or they will become time barred. Proceedings must be issued within a year of the publication of the defamatory statement. In "exceptional circumstances" this period can be extended to two years.

The recent decision in Caroline Watson and Adelina Campos –v- MGN Limited t/a Irish Sunday Mirror is the first written judgment to consider what constitutes exceptional circumstances:

a) There must be strong evidence to justify the delay, particularly if lawyers have been retained. The most likely evidence that would persuade a Court to extend the period is medical testimony that the claimant was unable to progress the claim due to a medical condition arising from the stress or anxiety caused by the defamatory statement.

b) The conduct of the claimant will be heavily scrutinised. He/she is expected to act without delay to rectify the damage caused by the statement.  This was highlighted in the application last year by former X Factor judge and singer Tulisa Contostavlos.  The Court refused to extend the period as there was no good reason to explain the delay.

c) The Court will take into account the interests of justice, including prejudice to either side.  For example, the Court will consider whether the delay has impeded either party's ability to adduce evidence.  This is a more important consideration in relation to claims of slander (oral defamation) as witness evidence is likely to be more accurate the closer it is to the incident.

Applying these principles, the High Court declined to extend the period, precluding Ms Watson from progressing her case.  The fact that Ms Watson retained lawyers within five months of the defamatory publication was of crucial importance – they or she should have been aware of the limitation period.

This High Court decision illustrates the importance of moving swiftly in defamation proceedings. It will also provide comfort to potential defendants because once a year has elapsed from the date of the publication, the chances of a claim emerging will significantly diminish.

For further information please contact Mark O' Shaughnessy.

Date published: 04 February 2016