Delay leads to denial in defamation case
“Justice delayed is justice denied” is a legal maxim. It means that if legal redress is available for a party that has suffered some injury, but it is not forthcoming in a timely fashion, it is effectively the same as having no redress at all.
In defamation proceedings, the limitation period is strict and a Plaintiff must not delay if they wish to obtain redress.
In the recent case Neil Rooney v Shell E&P Ireland Limited  IEHC 63, the High Court refused to allow a Plaintiff to benefit from a one year extension to the limitation period in defamation proceedings.
Under the 2009 Defamation Act (the “Act”) there is a one year period from the date of publication for a Plaintiff to issue defamation proceedings. Section 38 of the Act allows a Court to extend the limitation period to two years if it is satisfied that:
- the interests of justice required the extension of time; and
- the prejudice the Plaintiff would suffer would significantly outweigh the prejudice the Defendant would suffer if the period of limitation was extended.
Mr Rooney had a commercial relationship with Shell E&P Ireland Limited which broke down. Shell wrote to other companies on the 7th of March 2014 and informed them that Mr Rooney had been prosecuted by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency for illegal transportation and dumping of toxic waste, in respect of which he received a conviction and a substantial fine. In fact, Mr Rooney had never been convicted of any such offence. The person who had been convicted of the offence in question was not Mr Rooney, but another person of the same name.
Mr Rooney made a data access request to Shell and received a copy of the letter on 15 October 2014. Mr Rooney wished to bring a defamation case based on the publication of that letter. He was advised by his solicitors in early January 2015 that he had until 15 October 2015 to initiate proceedings. He instructed them to issue proceedings immediately, which they failed to do.
On 1 September 2015, Mr Rooney transferred his file to a new firm of solicitors. A Summons issued in early October 2015 and proceedings were finally served in January 2016.
Crucially, the date of publication here was 7 March 2014. Therefore, the proceedings should have issued before 7 March 2015. Ms Justice Ní Raifeartaigh held that in order to obtain a one year extension the Plaintiff must explain the delay and offer detailed evidence in support of the explanation. She found that Mr Rooney had provided a minimal explanation and very little detail as to the reason for not issuing before 7 March 2015.
Regarding the issue of prejudice she referenced the fact that the Mr Rooney has an alternative remedy against his first solicitor. She exercised the Court’s discretion and refused the Plaintiff’s application.
In recent years the High Court has been criticized (by the media mostly) for the levels of damages awarded in defamation cases. This case may indicate a stricter approach being adopted. Furthermore, it underlines the importance of observing the strict limitation period and highlights that a Plaintiff looking to extend the limitation period to two years will have to satisfactorily explain the delay leading to issuing and serving proceedings.