Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 1998 Week 9 Hansard (18 November) . . Page.. 2644 ..
MR HUMPHRIES (continuing):
This is an issue which has been on the table for at least 20 years. At our meeting in Perth earlier this year, no substantive progress was made on the issue. Indeed, the issue was withdrawn from the agenda of the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General and it was clear that uniform defamation reform in Australia is pretty well a dead letter for the time being.
In those circumstances, Mr Speaker, it is my view that, if the ACT cannot be part of uniform defamation law, it ought to be part of good defamation law as far as the citizens of the ACT are concerned. I am therefore indicating very clearly my intention to bring forward a suite of reforms to the law of defamation. One of those proposed reforms is a reduction in the timeframe for bringing forward a complaint on which is based an action for defamation.
Mr Speaker, at the present time a person can bring an action for defamation within six years of the publication of that defamatory material. It is obvious that bringing forward an action six years after a particular defamation has occurred creates a situation where the issues are being considered by the court in an entirely different setting and possibly in a different social context to the circumstances when the original defamation was brought forward. We only need to look at what might be said about a person - at how meaning can change and context can change over a period of time - to realise that delays of that kind can quite substantially affect the way in which the court and the community see particular things being said which give rise to defamation.
The proposals I have put on the table call for the limitation period for the action for defamation to be reduced to six months. Mr Osborne's Bill provides for the reduction in the period to be from six years to one year. I repeat: The proposal from Mr Osborne is a reduction from six years to one year. My proposal originally was from six years to six months, with the capacity for the court to extend it to three years in circumstances where it was satisfied that a plaintiff might not have had reason to be aware of a cause of action arising. On reflection, Mr Speaker, I can see no reason why the Assembly should not adopt Mr Osborne's proposal for a limitation period of 12 months, with an extension to two years in the event that the court finds that there is a good reason to extend for a person who was unaware within the framework of a 12-month limit.
Mr Speaker, the reason that I have put that position is that, since putting out my own proposals, I have invited comment on these proposals and I have received a number of comments from a number of different sectors, including a number of organisations and bodies involved in some way in defamation in the ACT, and, I might say, the views of those parties have been pretty universally that a reduction in the period is appropriate. The Canberra Times, for example, rather traditionally associated with defendants in defamation cases, said of the proposal to reduce the limitation period, "Given the immediacy of reputation, this seems a sensible limit". A special subcommittee of the Law Society, which I think would be more often associated with plaintiffs - or sometimes associated, at least, with plaintiffs - also gave support to the reduction in the time limit.
I am advised by the Canberra Times that there have been occasions where, with new database collections of information from newspapers, some potential plaintiffs have been actually doing a search on national databases of what other newspapers have reported of incidents taking place in other States and discovered where a particular incident has been