Peter Hain contempt case will not proceed


A contempt of court case taken against Labour MP Peter Hain over criticisms he made of a judge in Northern Ireland will not proceed, the High Court in Belfast ruled today.

Controversial comments in the former Northern Ireland secretary's autobiography, criticising a judge's ruling, sparked the legal action by the region's Attorney General John Larkin QC.

A compromise was struck by Mr Larkin and a lawyer for Mr Hain which resulted in the case being effectively set aside.

Mr Larkin promised not to initiate fresh proceedings on the same evidence.

Mr Hain faced a charge of "scandalising a judge", but lawyers for the Labour politician and his publishers Biteback had contested this.

The views written by the Neath MP related to Lord Justice Paul Girvan's handling of a judicial review of Mr Hain's decision to appoint police widow Bertha McDougall as an interim victims' commissioner for Northern Ireland when Mr Hain was Secretary of State.

But the court heard today that Mr Hain had written to Mr Larkin clarifying his comments.

His letter explained: "I simply disagreed with, and was exasperated by, the way he dealt with that particular case, coming as it did in the middle of immensely difficult political negotiations to achieve the final democratic peace settlement.

"I have never qualified his (Lord Justice Paul Girvan's) standing and motivation as a judge before that case nor have I done since.

"My words were never intended to, not do I believe that they did, in any way undermine the administration of justice in Northern Ireland or the independence of the Northern Ireland judiciary, that very independence and integrity I worked so hard as Secretary of State to achieve support for from all sections of the community, including those who had previously denied it."

Mr Larkin said that having received the letter, he no longer believed there was a risk to public confidence in the administration of justice.

The Attorney General told the court: "If the matter had been qualified or explained in the way it now has and only now has, these proceedings would not have been taken."

He added: "In the circumstances I have concluded that as there is no longer any real risk to public confidence in the administration of justice the public interest does not require that this litigation continues to judgment."

Lawyers for Mr Hain welcomed his comments.

The publishers said a footnote would be inserted in a future edition of the book, containing Mr Hain's clarification.

Mr Hain's barrister David Dunlop initially objected to a request by Mr Larkin that the court issue a no-order ruling.

He argued that this allowed the theoretical possibility that the case could be reopened at a later date and instead asked that it be struck out.

Mr Larkin responded: "There is no question of these proceedings being revived. I am happy to indicate that publicly."

Lord Justice Malachy Higgins, presiding alongside Justices John Gillen and Ronald Weatherup, adjourned the case for discussions between the two sides and to allow consultation with clients.

When proceedings reconvened Mr Dunlop said: "In light of the clarification by the attorney general the respondents do not object to the disposal of this case by way of a no-order."

The court's decision to set the case aside was welcomed by Mr Hain as a victory for free speech and for taxpayers.

He was not in court, but issued a joint statement with Iain Dale, managing director of Biteback Publishing.

"This is a victory for freedom of speech," they said.

"In September we will be publishing the paperback edition of Outside In without changing in any way the section that gave offence to some in the Northern Ireland judiciary.

"We were fully prepared to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary and our lawyers were confident of the outcome.

"But, after the astonishing decision to bring the prosecution, we are delighted that common sense has prevailed and that taxpayers have been saved a great deal of money in legal fees.

"We have been deeply grateful for cross-party support from nearly 150 MPs and to David Davis MP and David Blunkett MP for leading on this.

"There is no doubt that the near unanimous condemnation of the planned prosecution demonstrates conclusively how preciously people guard individual liberty."

They asked government and the Supreme Court to consider how the "ancient offence of 'scandalising a judge'... can be confined permanently to history".

Outside the court, the Attorney General said it was a satisfactory outcome, fostering public confidence in the judiciary.

"It is a victory for the administration of justice and it is important to point out that had Mr Hain provided the explanation and clarification which he now has, either in response to the statement issued by the Lord Chief Justice (Declan Morgan) or indeed in respect to pre-action correspondence, we simply would not have been here," he said.

He defended freedom of speech, saying it was vital, but added that it was not permitted to undermine public confidence in the administration of justice.

He said that if he had won his case it would be Mr Hain and his publishing house that would have had to pay. Today both sides agreed to cover their own costs."

The QC said Mr Hain's most recent letter had been a "measured and appropriate" response but defended use of the offence of scandalising a judge.

It is a law which has been widely discussed, particularly in recent weeks and months, and used in Australia and New Zealand.

Mr Larkin said: "It is not obsolete, whether it will be replaced is a matter for the legislature. My own view is that so much of our human rights, our core human rights, depend upon considerations by judges in courts, and if the public loses confidence in that, something irreplacable is lost and therefore there must always be some protection accorded to public confidence in the administration of justice."