Belfast Telegraph

Peter Hain hails move to bin 'archaic' law on contempt

By Trevor Mason

Former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain has welcomed Parliamentary moves to consign the rarely-used offence of scandalising the judiciary “to the dustbin”.

No successful prosecutions for the offence have been brought since 1931, peers were told in a committee stage debate on the Crime and Courts Bill.

But earlier this year Mr Hain faced contempt of court proceedings over criticisms he made in his memoirs of a judge in Northern Ireland — a case which prompted widespread criticism of Northern Ireland’s fledgling justice system.

The proceedings were dropped after Mr Hain wrote to Attorney General John Larkin clarifying that he never intended to question the High Court judge's motivation or capabilities in handling a judicial review.

The case raised concerns among politicians about freedom of speech and led to a move to scrap the offence of “scandalising the judiciary” last night in the Lords.

Mr Hain said: “I hope the Government will now consign this medieval offence to the dustbin.”

Leading the call, former deputy High Court judge Lord Pannick said making it a criminal offence to insult the judiciary had been an area of law subject to ridicule for over 100 years. It would have been left as a “legal relic” but for having “life breathed into it” by the Hain case.

“This bizarre episode has damaged the reputation of the legal system in Northern Ireland,” the independent crossbench peer said.

“Surely a former Secretary of State, indeed any citizen, should be able to express his views about a judge without being threatened with a prison sentence?

“Parliament should kill it off before it does any further damage,” he said.

Belfast crossbencher Lord Bew complained that the offence had a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech, and Labour's Lord Borrie QC said the offence was “out of date”.

What now?

The “archaic” offence of scandalising the judiciary was regarded by some as obsolete before Attorney General John Larkin resurrected it earlier this year.

The Law Commission is currently reviewing the law on contempt of court and is expected to report in 2014. Justice Minister Lord McNally acknowledged that any “gap in the law” left by abolition was “unlikely to be significant”.

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