HC Deb 23 July 1973 vol 860 cc1155-7
56. Mr, Arthur Davidson

asked the Attorney-General if, in view of the decision of the Law Lords in Attorney-General v. Times Newspapers Ltd., he now has any plans to amend the law of contempt.

The Attorney-General

Any amendment to the law must await the report of the Phillimore Committee, which will certainly give full consideration to the judgments in this case. It has been asked to complete its report as a matter of urgency.

Mr. Davidson

Is not the law of contempt now even more of a shambles than it was before, which is saying something? Does not the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that, if the law remains as it appears to be at the moment, it will prevent the Press from carrying out one of its most important duties, that of exposing injustice? I acquit the right hon. and learned Gentleman any desire to limit the freedom of the Press, but does he not now agree that legislation is vital in this matter?

The Attorney-General

It was because of the problems arising from the law of contempt, which are serious and which I much appreciate, that I also played a part in ensuring that the Phillimore Committee would examine the matter and report. What this case sought to do, and what was done by agreement between the newspaper and myself, was to clarify this part of the law. Whether that law is satisfactory will be a matter for this House at the time to consider as soon as we have had the reflections of the Phillimore Committee.

Mr. Ashley

Will the Attorney-General confirm that he has now sent a letter accusing me of "misrepresenting the facts" after I accused him of an ill-advised initiative in this matter on the Adjournment? As everyone knows, the initial move was made by the Sunday Times, but I was referring specifically to the House of Lords decision which arose specifically on the Attorney-General's initiative and on the initiative of nobody else. Therefore, will the Attorney-General now withdraw this serious charge and offer me an apology? Would he also care to confirm a point he made in his letter, that in his view there should be greater freedom of comment in civil proceedings?

The Attorney-General

The hon. Gentleman said that this case began on my ill-advised initiative. I will quote to him a letter from the Sunday Times, which states: The Sunday Times welcomes this decision"— that was the decision for litigation— as one which is both sensible and constructive and although the Sunday Times has not been asked for or given any undertaking it is not its intention to frustrate the object of the proceedings by publication of the article prior to judicial determination. The judicial determination was being sought on the initiative of the Sunday Times. In the course of those proceedings, the editor frankly said that he had been given legal advice that the article which was the subject of the proceedings was in a category different from that of the article published hitherto. It was therefore taken before the courts for the courts to make their decision. The Sunday Times appealed to the Court of Appeal. I appealed to the House of Lords. It was in the contemplation of all parties that we would get a final decision in the highest court in the land. That is what we have on the law as it stands at present.

Sir Elwyn Jones

In considering the matter of contempt generally, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman bear in mind the recent relaxation in the sub judice rule as it applies to the House of Commons and the fact that this relaxation has extended the freedom of right hon. and hon. Members and, through them, of the Press to report Members' views on matters which are or may be the subject of litigation, with in many cases an advantage to the public interest?

The Attorney-General

This is clearly a very important matter. The House came to that conclusion and decision, which was welcomed on both sides. It is a matter which I have no doubt that the Phillimore Committee will take into account when it makes its recommendations and doubtless the House will take it into account when, as I hope, there comes the time when we consider whether there should be legislation.

Mr. Ashley

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As the Attorney-General has made a serious allegation about my misrepresenting the facts, and as I have proved him completely wrong in fact, will he apologise—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must use the usual form.