Hain contempt case to cost public £300,000

Expensive legal wrangle over ex-minister's book may rebound on taxpayers

A controversial decision to take a former cabinet minister to court for remarks he made about a judge in a book could leave the taxpayer facing a £300,000 legal bill. Peter Hain, the former Northern Ireland secretary, will learn at a court hearing on Tuesday more details of the contempt charge against him after he criticised Lord Justice Paul Girvan in his autobiography Outside In.

The case centres on Lord Justice Girvan's handling in 2005 of a legal challenge to Mr Hain's appointment of Bertha McDougall, the widow of a police reservist shot dead by republican paramilitaries, to write a report on the scope of a Northern Ireland victims commissioner.

The decision by John Larkin, Northern Ireland's Attorney General, to prosecute Mr Hain for "unwarranted abuse of a judge" under a rarely used 18th-century offence of "scandalising the court" caused a political row. David Cameron suggested it threatened "modern democracy", and Sammy Wilson, the finance minister in Belfast, hit out at the use of public money. "If someone libelled you or me, the expectation would be that if we felt so aggrieved we would risk our own private money in taking the matter to court," Mr Wilson said. "Now why should a judge be treated any differently?"

More than 120 MPs in Westminster, including David Davis, Charles Kennedy, David Blunkett and Alistair Darling, have also backed a Commons motion condemning the move.

Mr Hain and his publishers, Biteback, have vowed to fight the case. The "scandalising" charge they face is so rarely used that in 1899 it was regarded as obsolete. Legal experts predict the Supreme Court will ultimately determine the case's fate. If Mr Hain is acquitted, the state will be left to pick up the legal costs, which are expected to reach £300,000.

Mr Hain insisted yesterday the charge was "inappropriate". He told The Independent on Sunday: "I worked flat out as a secretary of state to get the rule of law respected, and for the judiciary and policing universally to be accepted across the community in Northern Ireland. The idea I would undermine the judiciary's independence is frankly preposterous."

There are also concerns that the furore will undermine the fledgling justice system, which was devolved to Belfast only in 2010. Yesterday there were reports that Belfast lawyers believed Mr Larkin had made a "disastrous mistake". A senior Westminster source said: "It is a tragedy that the first big question that the devolved judiciary has confronted should be one in which they are seeking to deny free speech and apply censorship."

David Davis, the former shadow home secretary who tabled the Commons motion, warned that the case could have "a chilling effect on any comment on anything to do with the judiciary". He added: "The ability to comment on the judiciary is an important check on the law and the operation of the law. Whatever you think of the comment made by Peter about the judge, of course he can sue if he chooses to, but to have the state step in is astonishing."

Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Esteban Cambiasso makes it 3-3
premier league
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
people'I hated him during those times'
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleMemoir extracts show iconic designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Life and Style
fashionAlexander Fury's Spring/Summer 2015 London Fashion Week roundup
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late on stage in Brixton show
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
people''Women's rights is too often synonymous with man-hating'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam