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Tuesday, 3 October, 2000, 16:43 GMT 17:43 UK
Human Rights Act gets first test
Lee Clegg
The article in The Times criticised Lee Clegg's solicitors
The Law Lords have been asked to use the new Human Rights Act for the first time - to defend the freedom of the press.

The Times newspaper is seeking to overturn a libel ruling against the paper in the House of Lords.

Five Law Lords have been asked to overturn a ruling by the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland that the paper was not legally protected when it published an allegedly damaging passage from material handed out at a press conference.

The case is thought to be the first to be brought under the controversial Act since it came into force on Monday.

The act enshrines the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law and has been hailed as one of the most significant changes to the British legal landscape since the Magna Carta.

Press release

The Times was sued for libel in Northern Ireland by Belfast solicitors McCartan Turkington Breen, who represented paratrooper Lee Clegg.

Lance Corporal Clegg was convicted in 1993 of murdering a teenage joyrider and spent two-and-a-half years in prison before being cleared.

In January 1995 The Times reported on a press conference organised by a group campaigning for Clegg's release.

The newspaper's front page article included comments in a press hand-out from the group which criticised the law firm's handling of the soldier's defence.

McCartan Turkington Breen sued for libel and were awarded 145,000 after the courts ruled the press conference was not a "public meeting" and the journalist did not have "qualified privilege", which protects the press.

Respect

The Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland dismissed the newspaper's appeal against the libel verdict, but cut the damages to 75,000.

On Tuesday Lord Lester QC, for The Times, told Lords Bingham, Steyn, Hoffmann, Cooke and Millett the new Act required the courts to construe existing law - including defamation law - subject to the basic rights of the individual.

He said the case required a balance between the right to free expression of The Times and the "respect for reputation" of the solicitors.

Lord Lester argued it was incompatible with the right to free expression for The Times to be found liable because of a restrictive interpretation of what constituted a public meeting.

Journalists, such as the article's author Paul Wilkinson, had been invited to the press conference as the eyes and ears of the public, he said.

More cases

The House of Lords hearing, set for three days, continues on Wednesday.

Judgement is expected to be reserved but the eventual outcome could influence future cases.

  • Lord Lester will be answering questions for BBC News Online on Friday.

    More details of how to send your answers to the law lord will be posted on Wednesday.

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