A judge has ruled that a defamation lawsuit brought by former newspaper columnist and Senator Eoghan Harris against political journalist Aoife Moore should go to the Supreme Court.
The decision follows an application by Ms Moore, who sought either to have Mr Harris’s action dismissed as frivolous and vexatious, or else to have it referred to the High Court, where she has a separate defamation action against Mr Harris.
Both cases relate to tweets each party posted about the other.
After a hearing at Dublin Circuit Civil Court today, Judge John O’Connor said there was a risk of unfairness to one party or the other if cases were tried separately in the High Court and the Circuit Court.
He said that although the two lawsuits arose from different publications, they both “came from the same gene pool of facts” and it was appropriate that they both go before the High Court.
Both cases have their roots in Mr Harris’ use of a pseudonymous Twitter account under the name “Barbara J Pym”.
The terminally ill former columnist was fired from the Sunday Independent on May 7 last year after admitting he had a hand in running the Twitter account.
The newspaper’s editor, Alan English, said material published in the account often went well beyond fair and reasonable comments, describing Mr Harris’ involvement as a “breach of trust”. The Pym account and other accounts associated with it have been banned from Twitter.
A week later, Ms Moore, a political correspondent for the Sunday Times, sued Mr Harris in the High Court over an alleged “malicious libel campaign” against her.
She alleges Mr Harris was responsible for tweets between April 2020 and May 2021 when she worked for the Irish Examiner, which misrepresented them as having extremist views, did not condemn Sinn Féin’s bullying of women and condoned the atrocities committed by the Provisional IRA.
But four months later, Mr. Harris began his own defamation case against Ms. Moore in Circuit Court.
These referenced a tweet in which she explained that the Pym account had sent her “sexualized messages.”
In today’s lawsuit, Ms Moore sought to have Mr Harris’s case against her dismissed as “abuse of process” or otherwise referred to the High Court.
In an affidavit, she claimed Mr Harris brought his action in Circuit Court “to try in some way to undermine her High Court claim” “by coming to court first with an action that was only intended as a rear-guard action and a can be called without merit”.
Mr. Harris’ lawsuit was scheduled to be heard in January, while Ms. Moore’s lawsuit has not yet received a hearing date.
Ms. Moore’s application was filed by Conan Fegan BL on behalf of Phoenix Law. Mr Harris’ legal counsel, Hugh McDowell BL, was appointed on behalf of Dore & Co.
The court heard Mr Harris denied in an affidavit that he had any “ulterior motive” to sue Ms Moore and that his only aim was to “defend my good name”.
Mr. Harris admits to being behind the Pym account but denies responsibility for others.
His lawsuit against Ms. Moore stems from a tweet she posted via the Pym Twitter account after his firing, which read: “This account sent me sexualized messages about whether Mary Lou McDonald was ‘turning on’ me, the size of my ass and has been calling me a terrorist since the month I started Examiner. Since then I have had to go to the counseling center and the guards.”
Mr Harris alleges the tweet erroneously meant that he had sent Ms Moore sexual or sexualized messages and was sexually deviant or misogynistic.
In her application, Ms. Moore said that no defamatory meaning could reasonably be attributed to her tweet.
She also alleged that Mr Harris sought “an aside” in his defense of her libel action and that if his action in the District Court were carried out first it would render her case in the High Court a nullity of “res judicata”.
Judge O’Connor said the matter is “very interesting from a legal perspective” as it raises “quite a lot of new questions” about the way defamation suits are tried in court.
In deciding that the Harris case should be transferred to the High Court, the judge said a High Court judge would have a better sense of whether or not the two cases should be combined into one case.
He said that while he “can’t force it,” he believes District Court costs in Mr Harris’ case should continue to accrue.
Judge O’Connor also said both sides “would be encouraged to consider mediation.”
Earlier, Mr Fegan said Ms Moore “suffered terribly from all of this and wants to put it behind her as soon as possible”.
In an affidavit opposing the motion, Mr. Harris denied that his lawsuit duplicated matters Ms. Moore intends to litigate against him.
He said the two cases were separate proceedings “with virtually no overlap between them” relating to different disclosures and that it was entirely appropriate to hear them separately.
His attorney, Mr McDowell, said Mr Harris’ right of access to the courts included the right to hear his claim in a court of his choice.
“I don’t think it would be fair if he had to sue against his will in a higher, more expensive, and slower court,” McDowell said.
Mr Harris denies the defamation of Ms Moore, who is also suing Mr Harris’s wife, Gwen Halley, in a separate action for defamation in the High Court.
Ms Halley, also a former Sunday Independent writer, has admitted to being behind one of the suspended accounts that used the name “Dolly White”. She claims tweets from that account are “fair comments” and has said she will defend the lawsuit.
Ms Moore filed a separate criminal complaint against Mr Harris and Ms Halley for alleged online harassment. However, the DPP ruled earlier this year that none of the defendants would be charged.
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/courts/eoghan-harris-defamation-claim-against-journalist-moved-to-high-court-42206028.html Eoghan Harris’ defamation lawsuit against a journalist has been taken to the Supreme Court