Monica Leech defending her good name
The Monica Leech case against the Irish Independent may turn out to be a landmark case in the law of libel.
Monica Leech may join a celebrated host of personalities whose legal actions have changed the law on libel. Among the others are Albert Reynolds, the former Taoiseach; Patrick Hill, one of the Birmingham Six; and LB Sullivan, the former commissioner of police in Montgomery, Alabama.
Sullivan was the Plaintiff in the most famous legal case affecting the media anywhere. It arose from an advertisement placed in the New York Times on 29 March 1960, headed “Heed their Rising Voices”. The advertisement solicited funds to defend Martin Luther King and in the text of the advertisement it recited a series of civil rights abuses in Alabama, which included police misconduct. Some of the specific allegations were untrue and Sullivan instituted a libel action, claiming he had been defamed by inference.
The courts in Alabama imposed punitive penalties on the New York Times ($500,000 in damages in 1962, a huge amount then), which was hated in the southern states of America at the time because of its advocacy of civil rights for Blacks. The case was appealed to the US Supreme Court and in one of its most famous judgements ever it found the US Constitution's protection of freedom of speech covered material published without malice on matters of public concern. At a stroke it liberated the American media, enabling the exposure of official abuses to do with the Vietnam War, Watergate and other scandals.
Albert Reynolds sued the Sunday Times in the London High Court following the publication of an article in its English editions (not Irish) alleging he had lied to the Dáil over the Fr Brendan Smith case, an issue which caused the collapse of his government and his resignation as Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil.
The case wound its way to the House of Lords and there the law Lords introduced into English law, essentially, the same system the Sullivan case had established in America, although on a significantly more limited basis.
Patrick Hill took a legal action here against an English publisher, Duckworth, and a well known British lawyer, Louis Bloom Cooper, who had published a pamphlet stating the Birmingham Six were indeed responsible for the Birmingham bombings of 21 November 1974 in which 21 people were killed. The pamphlet was published long after the English courts had found the Birmingham Six had been the subject of a miscarriage of justice and were entirely innocent.
In the High Court here ,lawyers for the defendants argued the Irish courts should adopt the law as enunciated in the Albert Reynolds case by the house of Lords and the judgement of the judge in the High Court, Andrias O'Caoimh, essentially adopted the reasoning of the House of Lords.
It was widely expected that case would be appealed to the Supreme Court here and that the Supreme Court would define the limits of the law of libel for this jurisdiction, but that did not happen.
Now in the case brought by Monica Leech against the Irish Independent, which published the lurid comments a caller to RTÉ's Liveline made about her, the boundaries of libel again have been tested and the judge in the case, Peter Charlton, has adopted the Reynolds reasoning. This is being appealed to the Supreme Court and, finally, an opportunity will arise for the judges to modernise the law on libel.
Michael McDowell, as Attorney General and then Minister for Justice, had promised repeatedly to reform the law of libel through legislation. But he lost his seat and went out of office before this was achieved. In any event it was thought Fianna Fáil ministers would balk at the liberalisation of the law in this area because of a general antipathy towards the media. Now the change is likely to happen because of the intervention of judges, not through the legislative act of the representatives of the people in the Dáil.
There was/is another curious feature to the Monica Leech case: the finding by a jury that she suffered no damage to her reputation by virtue of the repetition of the lurid and admittedly defamatory remark made on radio. This will also be an issue in the repeal of the case to the Supreme Court.