Irvine closes down 'anti-judge' website

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By Robert Verkaik, Legal Affairs Correspondent

By Robert Verkaik, Legal Affairs Correspondent

7 November 1999

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, has shut down a website because it was being used to criticise judges.

The case has serious implications for freedom of expression on the internet and the extent of government influence over the world wide web.

In an open letter written to Lord Irvine, and published on the internet, James Hulbert, 67, from Hull, identified five judges who had presided over a series of cases in which Mr Hulbert claims he was denied justice.

Last week the Lord Chancellor's department wrote to Mr Hulbert's local service provider describing the material as "offensive" and asked the company to pull the plug. Kingston Internet Webmaster then closed down the site, saying the material contravened the company's terms and conditions. But Mr Hulbert said he was merely asserting his right of self-expression following what he describes as his outrageous treatment at the hands of the courts and the police.

Mr Hulbert and his wife were arrested in 1991 after a taxi driver complained that Mr Hulbert had not paid his full fare. After a trial in Hull he was acquitted of deception and assaulting a police officer. Mr Hulbert and his wife then brought a case of false imprisonment and assault against the police. It was settled when the police paid the couple £12,000.

On his website Mr Hulbert gave a detailed account of his nine-year battle to get the courts to admit that some of the evidence against him in his original trial was fabricated. His attempt to sue the judge and shorthand writer has been struck out by another court and he has lost all his subsequent appeals. Since the start of the case, Mr Hulbert, now retired, has suffered heart attacks which he says were brought on by the stress of the case.

He said: "This case has completely changed my life. I can't believe this has happened to me and I just want justice."

Following last week's intervention by the Lord Chancellor, Mr Hulbert has written to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, alleging that his human rights have been contravened.

His case also raises a number of issues regarding the policing of the internet. The internet was originally intended to be outside the law. But a number of recent cases have shown that the internet is very much subject to national laws and several websites have been closed down.

Geoffrey Scriven, of the Litigants in Person Society, which campaigns for fair trials, said the case also raised serious questions about the power of the Lord Chancellor. Mr Scriven said this was yet another example of the "Lord Chancellor throwing his weight around".

However, under article10 of the European Convention of Human Rights the reputations of judges are protected and Mr Hulbert must show that the decision to shut down his site was disproportionate to the impact of the site's contents. Many civil rights groups are concerned at the weakness of so called independent service providers in face of government pressure.

John Wadham, Director of Liberty, said: "We are concerned about the way in which some internet service providers feel forced to surrender and are therefore restricting freedom of speech."

A spokesman for the Lord Chancellor's Department confirmed that the department had written to the service provider alerting the company to the "offensive" material.