25 June 2009

What is the Price of a Woman's Virtue?

Yesterday evening a jury at the High Court in Dublin has made legal history by awarding the by far highest ever amount of damages to a litigant in a libel case in Ireland.

Monica Leech (left), a prominent communications consultant from Waterford, won her long-running libel action against Tony O'Reilly's Independent Newspapers (the country's largest media group) and was awarded a record € 1.87 million in damages.

She successfully claimed that the Evening Herald, which is Dublin's last afternoon newspaper and owned by the Independent group, had published false allegations that she got public contracts as a PR consultant because she was having an extra-marital affair with Waterford Fianna Fáil-TD Martin Cullen (right), who was at the time junior minister in charge of the Office of Public Works (OPW) and then promoted to cabinet rank as the Minister for the Environment, Heritage & Local Government.

Independent Newspapers had denied libel and Judge Eamon de Valera (a namesake and also a relative of the late President and Taoiseach) had said he would accept an unanimous verdict. A jury of seven women and five men began its deliberations just before 2 pm yesterday afternoon and delivered the surprise verdict in the evening.

After the verdict was announced in court, Monica Leech said that justice had been done. She was "delighted" and had been "vindicated".
It is no surprise that Independent Newspapers did not share her view. A rather shocked looking lawyer for the media group said that they would be appealing to the Supreme Court.

Which means that the matter - which has already created legal costs in the area of € 500,000 - will drag on for many more months and cost most likely another € 100,000 before the Supreme Court makes a decision.
Going by legal practice and past experience, it is most likely that the Supreme Court will rule the award as 'too high' and refer the case back to the High Court, where the whole procedure will then have to be repeated.
And since under existing Irish law juries cannot be told how much damages they can award, the result could again be quite a surprise for lawyers and participants in the case.

Leaving the facts, details and merits of this case aside for a moment, it is an excellent example for the sad fact that the legal system in Ireland (like in other countries using the Anglo-Saxon case law) exists predominantly for the benefit and large secure incomes of the legal professionals who run it.
Plaintiffs and defendants are never more than statists, uninitiated extras in an elaborate stage play they do not really understand, but whose production costs they have to pay, no matter what.

Looking at the case itself, there is meanwhile so much of it that it would easily fill a book. Five years ago, when the forceful Mrs. Leech worked for Minister Martin Cullen, many people saw a bit more in that than just a normal working relationship between consultant and client.
And the way things go, people gossiped, someone had a suspicion, and that led to a rumour.
After a while the always news-hungry reporters from the tabloid papers got hold of it, and when they had nothing better to write about, they created and printed the story of 'Monica and the Minister'. Without checking the facts or digging deeper, a few more serious media outlets joined in and re-printed the story.

By the time it reached Waterford and the desk of Monica Leech, it was too late. The damage was done, and for quite some time it was an open whisper that she had an affair with Martin Cullen.
I heard it myself, and it made even me - a man with no interest whatsoever in people's private lives - think.

Now, I do have the benefit of knowing both individuals personally. On the basis of that I think it is very unlikely that Monica Leech would have an affair with Martin Cullen. (In fact, it is hard to imagine Martin Cullen, a short and meagre-looking Fianna Fáil weasel with little personality or leadership qualities, in intimate company of any woman at all... But then again, since even the greyest of all grey politicians - John Major - managed to have an affair, one can never be entirely certain.)

No-one really knows if the media story did damage Monica's career or reputation, but she went for every single paper and medium that helped spreading it like an avenging angel, the flaming sword in hand. In separate cases she sued the Irish Independent, the Evening Herald, the Irish Mail (& Mail on Sunday) and RTÉ.
The latter two settled their cases out of Court and paid her sizeable amounts of compensation, but Tony O'Reilly and his Independent Group decided to fight the case.

Now they have the largest libel judgement in the history of the state against them. And even if - as expected - the Supreme Court should reduce the amount, it will still be a hefty sum.

Which brings me to the question of the compensation. € 1.87 million is a very large amount of money, even for a fairly well-to-do woman like Monica Leech. If she wanted, she could retire on such a sum and live happily and comfortably on the interest from it.

The jury obviously thought her worth of it, but does it really reflect the 'injury' or 'damage' done to her by the media?
If this had been a personal injury case, she would have to be at least paralysed from the neck down and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life to receive a compensation award of that magnitude.

But she is not. She is in fact a very fit and agile 49-year-old, brimming with ideas and energy. So what is the huge amount of money compensating her for? She never struck me as particularly vulnerable or fragile. Quite the opposite. She is a strong and forceful woman, and never anyone's fool. In recent years - after the rumours about her and Martin Cullen appeared - she was chief executive of the Waterford Chamber of Commerce, and thus I saw quite a lot of her.
It never occurred to me that she could be hurt or insulted easily.

Yet this is exactly what she claimed in Court now several times, and so far always successfully. I presume the really crucial point is that the sloppy reporters did not do their homework. They had no proof for their allegations, which is simply bad journalism and deserves to be punished. But is € 1.87 million the right kind of punishment for them? After all, it is not the journalists who wrote the story who pay. Their publisher is sued and has to pay up.

Some people have suggested that the money awarded to Monica Leech is compensation for the damage done to her reputation as a 'woman of virtue'. Since she is married and mother of two children, I can understand this to a certain extend.
But does this mean that the virtue of every woman in Ireland is worth € 1.87 million? If so, we will soon have a rather large number of female millionaires in the country. And if not, what is the cash value of a woman's virtue?

Does it depend on her age, her education, her looks or her achievements? If the virtue of Monica Leech's is worth € 1.87 million, what would be the sum awarded in compensation for the same libellous action to a female cabinet minister, Supreme Court Judge, or - for argument's sake - the President?

I am of course no lawyer, but I think this case is asking more questions than it has answered. In my humble opinion Ireland is in need of a serious and wide-ranging legal reform. And one of the areas for which we need a more clearly defined law is certainly the complex of slander, libel and deformation.
On the European continent, where civil as well as criminal law is codified and applied a lot more fairly, these matters are defined in every detail and the amounts of available compensation are also set out in law. No jury has the leeway to do what they want, and no 'surprises' are sprung on litigants or judges.

Ever since Labour-TD Mervyn Taylor became Minister for Justice in the 'Rainbow Coalition', the Department of Justice carries the annex 'and Law Reform'. However, this has so far not produced any significant changes to the arcane and class-based legal system the English left us with when they moved out of 26 of our counties in 1922.

We are supposed to deal with the problems of the 21st century, but in order to do it, we still use a legal system created in the 17th and 18th century, and slightly amended in the 19th and early 20th century. So when it comes to the Law, we are literally stuck in a time warp.

The sooner we solve this problem, the sooner we will have a more realistic and more functional legal system. In the meantime Monica Leech can enjoy her sudden windfall, while Tony O'Reilly is probably kicking himself and someone in the office of Independent Newspapers is trying to work out how they can recoup nearly two million Euros from the subscribers and readers of their papers.

The Emerald Islander

1 comment:

margaret mannering said...

It's the price of publishing lies not the price of a woman's virtue. The lie sold newspapers, the profits from that easily cover the cost of litigation. Good for her. Are we looking for and expecting the truth in our newspapers, or are we prepared to accept the lies. That jury says, that we are most definately not.

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