Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: The jury is out on this legal battle

Few legal cases have aroused so much public interest as that currently being brought against former Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Peter Hain, by the Attorney General, John Larkin.

Essentially Mr Hain is being accused of contempt of court for comments he made about a High Court judge in his memoirs and which relate to his time in the province. The comments have been interpreted as an attack on the independence of the judiciary and posing a risk that public confidence in the judiciary will be undermined.

The independence of the judiciary in a democratic society is of paramount importance and, quite rightly, should be jealously guarded. Yet there are many - including 120 MPs who have signed a motion criticising the prosecution of Mr Hain - who do not consider his comments to constitute an attack on the judiciary nor warranting contempt proceedings. In the hurly burly of political life the comments of Mr Hain, in all probability, would have been robustly challenged in the public domain without recourse to legal remedy. No one would have contended that they were an attack on the fabric of the political system.

Adding to the frisson of this case is the fact a centuries old law - scandalising the court - is being used to bring the proceedings. It was last used in the UK in 1931 and its resurrection in this case has raised eyebrows. There would have been less surprise had the judge referred to by Mr Hain in his memoirs taken a case for defamation.

Even the Attorney General admits fair criticism of judges or their decisions could sometimes be necessary. That obviously would be a matter of public interest, but there is no defence of public interest in this case.

Yet that does not stop the public being interested in, if somewhat bemused by, the proceedings. And many people wonder if the reputation of the judiciary is so frail that it needs protecting from criticism.

Ultimately, it will be for the judges to decide.

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