Letter: Legal views of the public interest

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The Independent Online
Sir: While we will have to await the Attorney General's appearance before the Scott inquiry to hear his full version of the events surrounding the signing by various ministers of public interest immunity certificates, the law in this area is not so obscure.

Reports indicate that ministers were invited, or perhaps ordered, to sign certificates describing documents by a class without themselves seeing the documents. In the leading case of Duncan v Cammell Laird (1942), Viscount Simon, then Lord Chancellor, said:

The essential matter is that the decision to object should be taken by the minister who is the political head of the department, and that he should have seen and considered the contents of the documents and himself formed the view that on grounds of public interest they ought not to be produced . . . (emphasis added)

In the 1962 case Re Grosvenor Hotel, London, Mr Justice Cross commented that

there is a real danger that ministers may be persuaded by their permanent civil servants to object to the production of documents of a particular class, which it would be inconvenient to the ministry to produce, although an impartial body of persons, if they considered the matter, might not think that the injury to the public interest, which would be caused by their production, counterbalanced the public interest, represented by the cause of justice, which would be caused by their not being produced.

Yours faithfully,


Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire

1 March