The Irish News today won a landmark appeal which overturned the awarding of £25,000 to a Belfast restaurateur over a critical review.
In a judgment which has far reaching implications for critics the world over, the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal ruled that the jury which decided the restaurant had been defamed had been misdirected by the trial judge.
The Northern Ireland Lord Chief Justice, Sir Brian Kerr, sitting with two appeal court judges, delivered a unanimous reserved judgment.
Sir Brian ordered a retrial, saying that although he thought a properly directed jury would have found in favour of the Irish News in Belfast he could not be certain.
It will be for restaurateur Cieran Converey to decide whether he wishes to pursue the case further.
Convery, owner of Goodfellas pizza restaurant on Kennedy Way in West Belfast, sued the Irish News for libel over a highly critical review of his premises published in August 2000.
Restaurant critic Caroline Workman criticised the food quality, the staff and the smoky atmosphere of the premises.
The jury, hearing the case more than a year ago, agreed with Convery that her review was defamatory, damaging and hurtful and he was awarded £25,000 damages.
The newspaper appealed, claiming what had been said about the restaurant had been fair comment.
Lord Lester QC, an architect of the UK Human Rights Act, fought the appeal on behalf of the newspaper, saying it would be “perfectly ludicrous” if libel proceedings could be issued every time a critic wrote a bad review.
Overturning the jury’s decision following a two day hearing in January, the Lord Chief Justice said: “I have decided that there was misdirection in the present case. I would allow the appeal and quash the order made in favour of the respondent.”
He added: “Although I consider it likely that a properly directed jury would conclude that sufficient factual substratum existed for the comment which constituted the preponderance of the article, I cannot be certain that this is so and I would therefore order a retrial.
“In any event, the question of malice has not been decided by the jury and this therefore remains an issue that requires to be determined if it is concluded that the defence of fair comment is otherwise available.”
The judges said they would rule on the issue of costs after Easter.
Convery issued a curt “no comment” as he left the court and gave no hint about whether he would proceed with having the case retried.
Irish News editor Noel Doran was thrilled with the judge’s ruling.
He said: “We are delighted. It is a great victory for the Irish News. We came here to prove a point of principle and we have been vindicated.”
He described the original verdict as perverse and welcomed it being thrown out.
He made clear that if Convery wanted to take the case back to court, he would fight him.
“We will go as far as we have to get the matter fully resolved.”
He said today’s judgment sent out a strong message that newspapers were entitled to publish fair and accurate reviews.
He said the case covered not just restaurant reviews but the work of film, theatre and music critics.
Doran said: “If a newspaper has to be entitled to express its views, we have defended that principle and we will continue to.”
The restaurant critic at the centre of the case, Caroline Workman, said: “I am very relieved. I think it is a good day for the restaurant trade of Northern Ireland.”
The Cork-based critic said she just wanted to get back to promoting the restaurants and food of Northern Ireland safe in the knowledge that she could be critical when she needed to be.