Today’s legal corner will deal with the fractious relationship between the Justice system and that elusive yet potent word –“sorry”.

Historically, the relationship was fairly simple: If you so much as uttered the word “sorry”, you were admitting liability and were therefore to suffer the legal and financial consequences that come with that. Unfortunately, this easy-to-follow rule can bring with it unnecessary lasting bitterness and gulfs in communication. However, the tumultuous relationship between the law and this expression of remorse may become a thing of the past due to recent and proposed legal developments.

The Defamation Act 2009 has a specific section entitled “Apology”. A new departure in legal enactments in this country, the section states that in a defamation action, an apology made by or on behalf of a defendant does not constitute an admission of liability by that defendant. The section goes on to copper-fasten the new relationship between this area of law and the apology by stating that such an apology is not relevant to the determination of liability in an action for defamation.

“Sorry” took another big leap forward in the Irish Justice system on the 16th of November 2010 when new rules were introduced to the High Court facilitating referral by Courts of Proceedings to a process of mediation or conciliation and also that it may be taken into account by a Court if a party refuses or fails without good reason to participate in mediation or conciliation.

Mediation is a process whereby parties to a dispute meet before a trained mediator with the aim of reaching a settlement of the dispute. This is often a more effective method of settling disputes as it is quicker and studies purport it to be up to 85% less expensive than a full court hearing. Many cases are not suitable for mediation, however if you think a case you are involved in may be suitable, you should suggest that to your solicitor.

The Mediation and Conciliation Bill 2010 affords a party to mediation the right to say “I’m sorry”. Section 26 of this proposed Bill states that an apology may be made by a person who is a party in a personal injuries action, however, such an apology does not constitute an admission of civil liability by that person. An offer of apology in the context of a personal injuries action is often considered to be of vital importance. A party may be very anxious to receive or give an apology and oftentimes apologies have been found to encourage the smooth and efficient running of the mediation process.

So there you have it: “Sorry” may no longer be the hardest word on your pocket. It is hoped that developments in legal practice will in future allow the uttering of that five letter word to result in the avoidance of much emotional and legal expense.

Aoife Thornton of Pierse Fitzgibbon, Solicitors, is a certified mediator and a member of the Mediators’ Institute of Ireland.