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Published 15 April 2020
In its recent judgment in Proudfoot v MGN Limited  IEHC 871, the High Court refused an application to extend the one year limitation period for defamation actions provided for under section 38 of the Defamation Act 2009. In doing so, the High Court upheld the primacy of limitation periods enacted by the Oireachtas and held that a court’s discretion to extend the one year window should be reserved for exceptional cases. An exceptional case might arise in circumstances where defamatory content is posted anonymously online and a claimant faces significant difficulty in identifying the party responsible for the offending statement.
In January 2018, the Irish Daily Mirror published a report of a criminal trial in France in which the Applicant was the defendant. In its article, the Irish Daily Mirror reported that "the court heard the football coach was a known dealer and was under surveillance in his home country.” The Applicant contended that this statement within the report was untrue as he had never been a drug dealer and had never been under surveillance by An Garda Siochána. The Applicant further alleged that the statement was defamatory insofar as the issues set out had not actually arisen during the course of the French proceedings. The Applicant failed to issue proceedings within one year of the date of publication of the report and relied on a number of grounds in support of his request for an extension to the limitation period, including the following:
Opposing the application, the Defendant highlighted its view that it would have a good defence to the claim. This defence was based on qualified privilege insofar as the article reported on proceedings before a foreign court. The Defendant submitted that it was entitled to rely on the certainty of the limitation period as laid down by the Oireachtas and that it was unjust to put it to the expense of having to defend proceedings brought out of time. In this regard, the Defendant placed particular emphasis on an averment in an affidavit sworn by the Applicant that he would be unable to meet the Defendant’s costs if it successfully defended the action.
In refusing the application, Mr. Justice Barr ruled that the Applicant had failed to establish that the interests of justice necessitated the extension of the one year limitation period. While the Applicant was probably unable to issue proceedings for the duration of his incarceration, he did have the opportunity to do so from August 2018 up until January 2019. Mr. Justice Barr noted that there was evidence that the Applicant had given detailed instructions to his former solicitor in October 2018 but that the solicitor had failed to issue proceedings prior to the expiry of the limitation period. In these circumstances the Court ruled that the Applicant’s relief lay in negligence against his former solicitor and that he could not rely on the default of his former legal advisor in order to defeat the Defendant’s entitlement to rely on the statutory limitation period.
Mr. Justice Barr noted that the Court might take a different view of a request for an extension to the limitation period where, for example, there was an inability to issue proceedings due to a difficulty in identifying either the publisher of an alleged defamatory statement or the date on which the statement was made. This might arise in the case of statements posted anonymously online. However, the same considerations did not apply to this application in circumstances where the date of publication and the identity of the newspaper in issue were readily ascertainable.
Mr. Justice Barr went on to find that the Applicant had not demonstrated the existence of a prejudice which would significantly outweigh the prejudice that would be suffered by the Defendant in permitting the claim to proceed. Any prejudice suffered by the Applicant could instead be offset through the issuance of negligence proceedings against his former solicitor.
The High Court’s refusal to grant the extension of time in this case and to strictly apply the one year limitation period for defamation actions will be welcomed by journalists and media outlets alike. The approach adopted by Mr. Justice Barr indicates a continuing willingness by the Irish courts to adhere to the statutory limitation period, which should only be departed from in exceptional circumstances. In doing so, the Court has brought certainty to the position of prospective defendants in defending defamation claims and their right to a fair trial.
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