Iconic loses appeal over Limerick Leader tax defaulter article

Court rules businessman entitled to High Court costs

The Court of Appeal (CoA) has rejected an appeal by Iconic Newspapers over an article in one of its publications in which a businessman was incorrectly named as a tax defaulter.

In May last year, a High Court jury awarded William Bird €75,000 after it found the article in the Limerick Leader, published in June 2016, was defamatory.

Mr Bird (82), a director of William Bird Limerick Ltd and operator of the Stella Bingo Hall in Shannon Street, Limerick, sued Iconic Newspapers Ltd over an article which outlined tax settlements from a list published by the Revenue Commissioners.

It stated: “Funfair/amusement activity operator William Bird, of Henry Street, reached three separate settlements for under-declaration of corporation tax and VAT, under-declaration of PAYE/PRSI and VAT, and under-declaration of corporation tax, in relation to three companies under his name. In total, the money paid to Revenue in his case amounted to €183,595.”


However, Mr Bird, from Castleconnell, had made no such settlements with Revenue. The settlements detailed in the Limerick Leader article had been made by three companies: William Bird (Rollercoaster) Limited, William Bird (Sales) Limited and William Bird Tramore Limited.

Mr Bird had nothing whatsoever to do with any of these three companies.

As part of its defence in the High Court, Iconic argued that the publication was covered by qualified privilege which provides certain protections for a publisher including that those reading it had a duty or interest in receiving it and that the publisher reasonably believed the receivers of that information had such a duty.

This issue was dealt with by the judge alone during the High Court hearing and he rejected Iconic’s claim that the article enjoyed qualified privilege.

The jury was asked only to decide whether the words complained of referred to Mr Bird and it found they did.

The €75,000 award it made however was just one euro short of the amount which would have meant Mr Bird would have got High Court costs for his case. But the judge found that it meant he was entitled only to the lower Circuit Court costs.

Iconic appealed the judge’s decision over qualified privilege while Mr Bird appealed the costs decision.

On Wednesday, Mr Justice Brian O’Moore, on behalf of the three-judge CoA, ruled the High Court judge correctly decided the qualified privilege issue but he did not think the judge gave proper consideration to the exceptional question of law involved.

He also did not think the judge gave appropriate consideration to the fact that the difference between the award by the jury to Mr Bird and the figure which would have entitled him to High Court costs was “gossamer thin”.

He found Mr Bird was entitled to High Court costs.

Mr Justice O’Moore accepted Iconic’s submission that qualified privilege was engaged on the occasion of the publication by the Limerick Leader of the list of tax defaulters.

However, Iconic’s argument would mean that qualified privilege would provide a full defence to any publisher who honestly shares information with the public at large about, say, the commission of a serious criminal offence even if this information is incorrect.

This scenario was not only “unpalatable”, to use the phrase of counsel for Iconic Newspapers, he said, but it would be arguably inconsistent with the constitutional entitlement to the protection of an individual’s good name as set out in legal precedent.

Such a dramatic change to the law was something which, if intended by the legislature, one would have expected to see spelt out in the clearest of terms, he said.

He also said the report by the Limerick Leader of the tax defaulters list in Iris Oifigiúil was neither fair nor accurate which was also a requirement of defamation law.