HC Deb 12 May 1965 vol 712 cc517-20
35. Mr. Lipton

asked the Attorney-General if he will introduce legislation to make it impossible for a judge in private and without publicity to commit a person to prison.

36. Mr. Abse

asked the Attorney-General whether he is aware that persons are being gaoled at secret hearings; and whether he will refer, for consideration by the Rules Committee, Order 42(4) of the Supreme Court Rules, so that it may be provided that, in any private hearing arising out of the adoption or wardship of an infant, a judgment leading to imprisonment of a party must be given in whole or in part in open court.

37. Mr. Lubbock

asked the Attorney-General in how many cases since the beginning of 1964 a High Court judge has exercised his discretion to hear an application in private under Order 44, Rule 2(4)(a); in how many of these cases a person has been committed to prison; and in how many of the cases where a person was committed to prison no public announcement was made.

38. Mr. Hector Hughes

asked the Attorney-General if he will introduce legislation to prevent judges from committing persons to prison without any public hearing of the matter.

39. Mr. Ensor

asked the Attorney-General whether he will consider amendment of the law relating to alleged contempt of court so that individuals are not sent to prison in private.

The Attorney-General (Sir Elwyn Jones)

In the debates on the Bill for the Administration of Justice Act 1960, Parliament accepted the need to give the court a discretion to hear in private applications for committal orders in certain cases and, in particular, any cases involving children where the interests of the children may be seriously prejudiced by publicity. In these cases the judges exercise parental jurisdiction over the wards entrusted to their care by their parents. They have not surprisingly conceived it to be their duty to shield their wards, so far as they can, from undesirable publicity.

The present Rules, which were of course laid before Parliament, plainly authorise both the hearing of applications for such committal orders and the making of such orders in private; and I am informed that, since the beginning of 1964, there have been thirteen applications for committal orders heard in private under Order 44, Rules 2(4)(a); in four of those cases committal orders were made; three such orders were made in private and one in open court. However, my noble friend, the Lord Chancellor, proposes to refer to the Supreme Court Rule Committee the question whether it would be possible, consistently with safeguarding the interests of these concerned, to require the commital order itself to be made in public.

Mr. Lipton

With every respect for the interests of wards and innocent children, may I ask my right hon. and learned Friend whether he is aware that it came as quite a shock to the general public to discover that it is possible to commit an unnamed person for an unnamed offence to an undisclosed prison without anybody knowing anything at all about it? Is that in accordance with our traditional belief in the liberty of the subject? In view of the dangerous nature of this kind of procedure, will my right hon. and learned Friend take steps to end it at the soonest possible moment?

The Attorney-General

I certainly can give no assurance to end what in certain circumstances may be a necessary safeguard. However, as I have said, my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has referred to the appropriate committee the question whether it is at least possible to require the committal order itself to be made in public. I doubt whether the public at large was quite as shocked as my hon. Friend states. Perhaps had the general public been fully informed of the particular circumstances of the case the shock would have been on the other side.

Mr. Abse

May I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for referring this matter to the Supreme Court Rule Committee? Will he direct attention to the fact that it is quite possible in this sort of proceedings, as in divorce proceedings, for the judgment which is given to be the only matter which needs to be reported and that a wise judge can surely give his judgment in open court without causing any harm to any child involved in the proceedings? Would my right hon. and learned Friend also note, when he refers the matter to the Supreme Court Rule Committee, that there is a general body of opinion, while it is certainly concerned with protecting children from scamps, which looks with some suspicion at the whole idea of making young women wards of court, for how can any courts determine what may or may not be a disastrous marriage?

The Attorney-General

I hope that my hon. Friend appreciates that this procedure is initiated by the parents of the ward for the protection of the child and that Parliament has seen fit to impose upon the judges this very difficult jurisdiction, which I am sure they do not enjoy exercising and which they exercise with the interests of the ward in mind. However, on the point of the possibility of at least a pronouncement that a committal of a contemner has taken place, that will receive consideration by the appropriate committee.

Mr. Lubbock

Is the Attorney-General aware that the circumstances in this case are entirely irrelevant to the question of the general principle which is dealt with in these Questions? Will there be any opportunity of debating this matter in the House when the Committee to which he has referred it has considered it?

The Attorney-General

That is not a question for me.

Mr. Hector Hughes

Does my right hon. and learned Friend appreciate that such a secret sentence is inconsistent with the settled doctrine of British law that not only should justice be done but it should be seen to be done, a principle which has been approved of by many distinguished judges, including Lord Hewart? Will he see that this is taken into account in the reference to the Lord Chancellor's Committee so that this inconsistency is not extended to include the death sentence so that people may be sentenced to death secretly?

The Attorney-General

The procedure of committal in secret, as my hon. and learned Friend put it, is, of course, confined to cases of this kind. I can assure him that the principle which he has mentioned is well known to those who have the task of dealing with this jurisdiction, but, as I say, we are inquiring whether something can be done to see whether at any rate some formal announcement can be made that a contemner has been sent to gaol.

Sir C. Osborne

Would the Attorney-General bear in mind that the lawyers who have been talking on both sides of the House do not speak for the whole of the people in this country? We get rather tired of the lawyers gnawing on these things. Is he aware that the ordinary people of this country support the action which he has taken?

The Attorney-General

I am grateful for that belated recognition, and I hope that in giving it the hon. Member is not distinguishing the Attorney-General from lawyers at large.

Mr. Maxwell

Will the Attorney-General bear in mind that what causes me anxiety about this procedure is the possible extension of the power of incarcerating people for other reasons about which we know nothing? This is what worries us about it.

The Attorney-General

My hon. Friend need not worry. There is no reason whatever for him to do so. I think that he can leave the House tonight fully assured as to his liberty.