Ireland proposes controversial privacy law

The Irish Government has published a controversial privacy bill which opponents claim could hamstring the media and undermine principles of open justice.

The legislation will introduce a new offence of violating the privacy of an individual. It says that people have a right to a "personal sphere of privacy".

"For public figures that sphere is necessarily smaller than for private citizens, and rightly so," said Justice Minister Michael McDowell. "However, the very fact that a person may have a public persona does not eliminate their right to enjoy a certain level of privacy. This is particularly so where members of their families are concerned."

McDowell had previously claimed that there was no need for a specific privacy law, since the Irish Constitution and the European convention on human rights both protected individuals' privacy. The position of the Justice Minister, himself a former libel lawyer and Attorney General, has changed.

The law is widely seen in Ireland as the price that McDowell has had to pay to cabinet colleagues for a loosening of the defamation laws. His party, the Progressive Democrats, is the minority partner in Ireland's coalition government and had made a liberalisation of the defamation laws a manifesto promise.

Ministers from the majority partner Fianna Fail are said to have insisted on greater protection for privacy after a number of recent intrusions into politicians' private lives by newspapers.

While individual editors have objected, the defamation and privacy laws have received the support of the Press Industry Steering Committee, which represents newspapers and journalists.

Of more concern to some are the implications for the courts system. The bill will bar even the press from some in camera court hearings and expand the ability to hold trials in camera out of the family courts.

"[This] adds a layer of secrecy to the judicial process," said Pamela Cassidy, solicitor with Cassidy Law, a media specialist law firm. "My argument is that this is unnecessary, that anonymity in appropriate cases is sufficient, and also that it is an interference with other equally important rights, free speech and open justice."

McDowell set up a working group to assess the need for a privacy bill; that group said that a law was needed, but that certain safeguards must be put in place. "It is a matter of concern that the bill departs from the recommendations of the working group on the issues of press in court and strict qualifications on departing from the constitutional principle of open justice," said Cassidy.

The new law will contrast with the UK, where there is no specific privacy law. Protection of privacy is governed by a slew of Acts, such as the Data Protection Act, the Human Rights Act, defamation laws, the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

"There was a proposal in the 1990s for a privacy law but the compromise was the Press Complaints Commission," said Dr Chris Pounder, Consultant & Editor of Data Protection & Privacy Practice at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM. "The Government published a consultation document but the press were up in arms. They said they would have the PCC but no privacy legislation."

Cassidy said that the new Irish law should not be a major problem for newspapers. "The bill is not so bad for the press," she said, "because it offers a defence of public interest, and also of 'acts of newsgathering', again in the public interest. Trivia will be excluded."