Injunctions fuelling privacy debate

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The subject of injunctions and super-injunctions has fuelled wide-ranging debate, from the alleged usurping of Parliament to the balance of privacy against freedom of expression and the effectiveness of the press watchdog.

At the House of Lords yesterday it was even revealed that the Ministry of Justice did not know how many super-injunctions had been issued.

Justice minister Lord McNally admitted that the department does "not have a figure" but said the chief statistician was looking into the matter.

In a debate on the human rights convention, Labour ex-lord chancellor Lord Irvine of Lairg denied that judges who were granting celebrities injunctions protecting their privacy were usurping the role of Parliament.

He criticised Prime Minister David Cameron for taking the side of the press over their fears of a creeping judge-made privacy law.

Lord Irvine said: "Judges are under instruction from Parliament in the HRA (Human Rights Act) to balance the right of respect for a person's private family life against the right of freedom of expression in article 12.

"The scales are weighted in favour of freedom of expression because the Act requires judges to have particular regard to its importance.

"It is often not just the rights of celebrities which are at stake but also those of innocent third parties, including children."

Labour ex-deputy prime minister Lord Prescott, whose phone was allegedly hacked and is seeking a judicial review into the subsequent police inquiry, warned the UK against following the American approach of unfettered freedom of speech.

"There is a clash and a difference between what we might call the European tradition and the American tradition," he said. "Do we have in legislation protection for individuals, a balance between the public expression and freedom of speech and that of the individual's freedom? That's got to be decided."

He called for a radical overhaul of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) which he claimed "totally ignored" allegations of phone hacking carried out by the News of the World.

He told peers: "Let's put it into legislation. Let us have not necessarily statutory control but a body that is independent, accountable and answerable and is concerned about the private individual and not just the editors that control their editorial board."

But Tory Lord Black of Brentwood, a former director of the PCC, said self-regulation would be the only truly effective way in an internet age to keep up to date with modern developments.

He said the PCC had proved "highly adept at dealing with highly complex privacy issues in a common sense, unobtrusive way that does not raise all the problems of public court cases or secret injunctions".

Lib Dem Lord Thomas of Gresford asked during Lords question time how many super-injunctions had been issued and were in force.

"Hugh Tomlinson QC, the leader in privacy law, tells me the Ministry of Justice has no idea," he said.

"Perhaps the minister would send a runner down to the Royal Courts of Justice to find out how many there are. The Times says 30, other newspapers say 800."

Lord McNally replied: "I have to confess that the Ministry of Justice do not have a figure on the number of super-injunctions.

"I do understand that the Ministry of Justice chief statistician is looking into the matter and we do hope to be able to give those figures shortly."