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."