HC Deb 23 June 1965 vol 714 cc1754-6

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

37. Mr. ABSE

To ask the Attorney-General what conclusion the Supreme Court Rule Committee has now reached on the question of judgments leading to imprisonment of parties being given in open court.

The Attorney-General (Sir Elwyn Jones)

With permission, I will now answer Question No. 37.

The House will remember that when I was asked on 12th May a number of Questions about the making of committal orders in private I said that my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor proposed to refer to the Supreme Court Rule Committee the question whether it would be possible, consistently with safeguarding the interests of those concerned and particularly wards of court whose welfare might be damaged by publicity, to require the committal order itself to be made in public.

The Rule Committee met on 3rd June and, in accordance with its decision, the Rules of the Supreme Court (No. 2) 1965, which were laid before Parliament on 11th June, provide that, where the court decides, on an application heard in private, to commit a person to prison for contempt of court, it must state in open court the name of the person committed, the nature of the contempt in general terms and, if the committal is for a fixed period the length of that period.

I must, however, warn those who may publish any other information about the proceedings, obtained, for example, by interviewing the person committed, that they will still be in contempt of the court to the same extent as they would have been under the old law.

Mr. Abse

May I, first, congratulate the Attorney-General on having the opportunity of giving any oral reply at all in the House?

Would it not be an appropriate occasion, when giving this reply, to thank the Press for its vigilance in having brought to the attention of the country the need for particular concern in matters affecting personal liberty, as in this case? Would not the Attorney-General regard it as necessary that we should look at the substantive matters dealt with under the Rule, in view of the fact that there is widespread opinion that some of these matters could be dealt with within the family circle, and that the judges should not be so manipulated that they have to do the job of parents who have failed?

The Attorney-General

The judges have this burdensome task of acting in loco parentis and I am sure that they would be happy to be relieved of this jurisdiction. But the question raises broad matters of principle. In the meantime, the steps taken by the Rules Committee will, I think, commend themselves to the House.

While appreciating the importance of the functions of the Press in regard to the administration of justice, the House will also bear in mind that the protection of the reputation and character of wards of court is also important and that any disclosure damaging to them in these delicate circumstances is something which the courts have felt themselves obliged to avoid.

Mr. Hogg

When he is considering the broad questions of principle to which he referred in the last part of his Answer, would the right hon. and learned Gentleman bear in mind that, in recent years, there has grown up an ugly and disreputable racket of seeking to get hold of and corrupt young women who are supposed, rightly or wrongly, to own private fortunes?

The Attorney-General

I am wrapped in curiosity and mystery about this remarkable racket, which may well be the subject of a forthcoming Sunday newspaper publication.

Mr. Hector Hughes

Does my right hon. and learned Friend realise that he has said nothing about the defence which may be put forward by the person committed, and that the mere fact of giving publicity to his committal without saying anything about any defence which he may have made may inflict upon him irreparable damage? What steps are being taken to protect the person committed in such circumstances?

The Attorney-General

The steps which are taken are that, generally speaking, such persons enjoy legal aid. It is implicit in the making of a committal order that, presumably, the judge has refused to accept the defence and explanation of the defendant. I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend, with his great experience of the law, must bear in mind that, in these matters, judges behave with complete fairness to the parties.

Mr. Lubbock

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that his statement will be widely welcomed? Does it apply only to wardship cases or to the others which are covered by the Order 44 Rule as well?

The Attorney-General

I think that it is of general application, but the practice of committal privately has only been used, in fact, in wardship cases. This is the effective part of the jurisdiction as far as the Order is concerned.