HC Deb 22 July 1960 vol 627 cc1025-31
Mr. Stanley R. McMaster (Belfast, East)

I beg to move, in page 8, line 26, at the end to insert "or of a Divisional Court".

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Gordon Touche)

I think that it would be convenient to discuss at the same time the following two Amendments, in page 8, line 28, leave out "a Divisional Court or", and in line 29, leave out "either of those Courts" and insert "that Court".

Mr. McMaster

As we are pressed for time, I should like to state briefly the reasons for the Amendment. First, I and my learned friends welcome the reform which is provided in the Bill so that, for the first time, there can be appeals in cases of criminal contempt, bringing this country into line with most other countries. There is, however, an anomaly in the Clause.

I wish to draw attention particularly to the provisions of subsection (2, b). In cases where contempt of court is perpetrated either in a county court, any other inferior court, the Chancery Court or against a single judge of the High Court, the appeal lies to the Court of Appeal, whereas in the case of a decision of the Divisional Court, the appeal lies to the House of Lords.

That has important results. The appeal from the Divisional Court is only an appeal with leave, whereas an appeal to the Court of Appeal is one which lies as of right. There was a suggestion during Second Reading that there is a distinction between civil and criminal appeals.

3.45 p.m.

However, I still argue that there is an anomaly in Clause 13 as drafted. For instance, if someone throws a rotten tomato at a judge, then the court to which the appeal will lie will depend simply on the court in which the person throws his tomato. I suggest that it is anomalous that if a person throws a tomato at a Queen's Bench judge or Chancery judge and is committed for contempt and wishes to appeal he should be allowed to go straight to the Court of Appeal, whereas in the case of the Divisional Court he would go to the House of Lords.

Newspaper cases were particularly referred to on Second Reading, and, again, where the appeal lies depends on the court in which it is alleged there has been the contempt. It was pointed out by the Solicitor-General on Second Reading that many cases of newspaper contempt are dealt with by the Divisional Court. But not all of them. For instance, if there is an alleged contempt in the Chancery Division the appeal from such a contempt will lie to the Court of Appeal. Also, so far as the Bar is concerned, where a counsel in practice—and this, I can assure the House, does arise in certain cases—desires to ask a particular question of one of the witnesses and is informed by the judge, or given to understand, that such a question would be treated as contempt of court, then he is under threat if he does ask such a question, and if he wishes to appeal from the decision of the judge on the point of contempt, his appeal, in the case of the Divisional Court, will only lie with leave to the House of Lords.

The Solicitor-General put forward a number of arguments on Second Reading which I should like to deal with briefly. He said that he did not desire to interfere with the existing appeal procedure. Well, the rights under the Bill are already con- fused. There is not, for example, a rule laid down in the Bill that civil contempt shall go to the Court of Appeal, whereas criminal contempt shall go to the House of Lords. Take, perhaps the most obvious example, which I have already mentioned, the contempt perpetrated in the face of the court consisting of a direct assault on the judge. In such cases the issue of contempt will go in one case to the Court of Appeal, in another case to the House of Lords. The questions which are likely to arise for decision on appeal are questions of mixed fact and law. It has been suggested that it is appropriate that the House of Lords should be the court which, in the case of criminal contempt, should deal with the appeal, but is not the Court of Appeal the correct court for dealing with mixed fact and law?

I would suggest to the Attorney-General that he should consider that contempt must be distinct from other criminal cases. Contempt is not an issue which is tried by a jury. In addition, it is well known that the Divisional Court itself deals with many cases 'both criminal and civil, as do judges of the High Court on assize. There is a great complexity in the present law on contempt and there is a great deal of un certainty, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) on Second Reading. All cases should be referred on appeal to the Court of Appeal. The right of appeal should be as of right. It should not be in any one group of cases as of right and in another group an appeal with leave. The second group of cases is selected by chance circumstances under procedure formulated and laid down in the "White Book" before any such appeals were thought of.

The point has been raised that appeals from the Divisional Court, which is an appellate tribunal itself, should go to the House of Lords and not to the Court of Appeal. I would say to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General that it is true that both the Divisional Court and the Court of Appeal consist of three judges, but there is a big difference between them. The Divisional Court consists of puisne judges, whereas the Court of Appeal is chosen from a specially selected panel of senior judges occupying a very different status from that of the Divisional Court. In the Divisional Court there is a very busy atmosphere. It is all the more desirable that a speedy and easy path of appeal should lie to the Court of Appeal which is literally next door to the Divisional Court, and not to the House of Lords.

I should like to mention particularly newspaper contempt. It has been suggested that in order that a consistent body of case law can be built up, appeals from the Divisional Court should go to the House of Lords, but there is no such thing recognised in our Constitution as a special body of law of the Press. Why should appeals on points which arise from contempt in relation to newspaper articles be denied an appeal as of right? Why should they only have an appeal with leave? The Amendment has been widely supported by the Bar Council, by leading members of the Bar, and by newspapers. I suggest that for reasons of expedition and uniformity and in order to safeguard the liberty of the subject, all these appeals should lie to the Court of Appeal.

The Attorney-General

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster) has left me very little time to reply to his speech advocating this proposal. [Interruption.] If hon. and right hon. Members opposite will allow me to deal with my own speech, I will.

Mr. Gordon Walker (Smethwick)

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman is going to be rude like that, will he allow me to reply?

The Attorney-General

I was not being rude.

Mr. Gordon Walker

The right hon. and learned Gentleman was being very offensive.

The Attorney-General

Not in the least. I was dealing with the point raised by my hon. Friend when I was interrupted and I am asking to be allowed to deal with the point.

The Lord Chancellor and I and others carefully considered the channels of appeal which should be used in these cases. I can deal quite shortly with the points that my hon. Friend made, in the hope that we can make further progress with the Report stage, by saying that we thought and we still feel that it would be wrong to give the Court of Appeal jurisdiction in criminal cases and in matters in which it has no jurisdiction at present. Secondly, we thought, for good reasons, that there is no valid ground for interfering, as my hon. Friend suggested that we should, with the normal channels of appeal.

It is perfectly true to say that there will be an appeal to a different tribunal depending upon the court in which the contempt is committed. It is part of the system of our law that there are appeals to different appellate tribunals from the decisions of inferior courts, but I do not think that is an argument for saying that we should put in a new link of a further appeal to the Court of Appeal before going to the House of Lords in relation to appeals from the Divisional Court in criminal causes and matters.

I really cannot add more to what I have said as to the reason for our decision about these appeals. The possibility of channelling all appeals through the Court of Appeal was, of course, carefully considered. That would mean an additional link in the chain, and I really must say that I do not think that any real advantage would be gained by doing so.

Mr. Fletcher

I really was astounded when the Attorney-General began his remarks by saying that his hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster) had left him very little time. We are dealing today with one of the most important subjects that Parliament can deal with—the liberty of the subject. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I are determined that there shall be no kind of timetable imposed upon the discussion of the Bill.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East has raised a very important subject, one which attracted a great deal of attention in The Times. I thought it was particularly unfortunate that he should feel himself hurried in having to present his arguments to the House. For the Attorney-General to say that he had been left very little time to deal with the Amendment was really an affront to the House in dealing with a matter of this kind.

There is no possibility of finishing the Report stage today. We are not responsible for the way in which the Government arrange the timetable of the House. Surely the Attorney-General was not speaking on the assumption that we should try to deal with this Amendment and three further Amendments dealing with habeas corpus and then have the Third Reading before four o'clock. The original intention was, of course, that we should have two or three hours so that there could be a leisurely debate—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That cannot arise on this Amendment.

Mr. Fletcher

I apologise, Mr. Speaker. It arises, of course, out of the remark by the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I merely wanted to make it plain that I thought that that was a most unfortunate remark since we have these vitally important matters to deal with.

To my hon. Friends and myself the way in which the channels of appeal from one court to another should be arranged is a matter of very great concern. As the hon. Member for Belfast, East said, the Bill makes a good many changes in connection with cases of contempt, some of which we approve and about others of which we have certain reservations. For myself, I think that this is a matter which requires a good deal of patient ventilation. This was not one of the matters which were exhaustively considered in Committee.

Speaking for myself, I should have thought that there was a great deal to be said for the recommendations made by the hon. Member. After all, we are now giving a new series of appeals in cases of contempt. We are dealing in the Bill for the first time with appeals in cases of contempt in face of the court. There are relaxations in other fields. I should have thought that it was very desirable that there should be one clear-cut, simple channel by which appeals in all contempt cases could be dealt with. Therefore, I very much hope that the House will support the Amendment.

Amendment negatived.

The Attorney-General

I beg to move, in page 8, line 40, after "one" to insert "and section two."

This clarifies the question as to the time in which an application for leave to appeal must be made. It makes it 14 days.

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Monday next.