HC Deb 19 July 1977 vol 935 cc1381-4
Mr. Speaker

Yesterday points of order were raised about references to the conduct of judges and I think that it might be helpful to the House if I restated the practice of the House in this matter.

It is one of our oldest rules, mentioned in May's "Parliamentary Practice" on page 428, that the conduct of certain persons, including the judges, cannot he criticised save in a substantive motion. This rule has been strongly enforced by my predecessors for 200 years. Since it is my duty to see that the rules of the House are observed, I must enforce this rule as well. If the House, or certain Members of the House, do not like the rule, they must get it changed. I cannot change it.

Yet the rule is not so restrictive as some hon. Members may think. It is not necessary to have a substantive motion before the House to allow Members to argue that a judge has made a mistake, that he was wrong, and the reasons for those contentions can be given within certain limits, provided that moderate language is used.

On the other hand: Reflections on the judge's character or motives cannot be made except on a motion. No charge of a personal nature can be raised except on a motion. Any suggestion that a judge should be dismissed can be made only on a motion."—[Official Report, 4th December 1973; Vol. 865, c. 1092.] That statement of our rules was given by my predecessor on 4th December 1973, and I have given similar rulings myself which seem to have been generally accepted by the House.

I acknowledge that there is considerable feeling about the recent judgment, but that cannot alter the practice of the House. It should be possible for hon. Members to voice their opinions while still keeping within the limits of what is permissible in the light of this explanation. What is permissible must always be a matter of judgment and only the Speaker can exercise that judgment. He will do it to the best of his ability and as impartially as possible. Much must depend upon the context in which an observation on a judge is made. I can only say that, in my view, to refer to a judge's summing up as "disgraceful", as was done yesterday, must fall on the wrong side of the line.

However, I have had the advantage of discussing the speech which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) will make today in introducing his Ten-Minute Bill and I am satisfied that, on the basis of what he has told me he proposes to say, he will be in order.

Mr. John Mendelson

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The statement which you have just made will not, of course, as a statement, he contradicted by any right hon. or hon. Member who knows that you have merely repeated current practice. However, with regard to the interpretation, I think that you will agree that it all depends on how restrictive the attitude of the Chair is when the subject is being broached. In spite of the loud cheer from one hon. Member opposite when you made your statement, I submit to you and to the House that what happened yesterday and might happen on other occasions is the result of strong feeling in the country, which is always of the greatest importance to any interpretation and application of procedure in this House, and of the treatment of an hon. Member who issues a judgment about a particular case and a judge by praising him and his humanity, as contrasted to the equal right, in the opinion of some hon. Members, if that is allowed, to make a critical character judgment of the same judge. You have said that that would be out of order, so it should also be out of order to try to influence opinion by praising the humanity of a judge whose decision is regarded as anything but humane by so many people in the country at large.

Mr. Molloy

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that the House is grateful for the attention which you have given to this difficult question and for your enlightenment this afternoon. What perturbs many of us is that in the past it seems to have been in order to make laudatory and even sycophantic statements about judges without any criticism from the Chair but that we are not allowed to question the wisdom and sometimes the interpretation of a judge—as in the recent case, where the soldier could not, under Queen's Regulations, be sent back to his regiment on the recommendations of the judges, who were therefore in a way recommending the breaking of the law. I hope that the leniency which you, Mr. Speaker, have indicated might be shown if our language is moderate will allow us to express not only our own views but the grave and bitter feelings of many people outside the House.

Mr. Lipton

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I make it clear that when I used the word "disgraceful" yesterday I was talking of the judgment and not of the judges. I have therefore been allowed to put on the Order Paper the three notices of motion in the proper form requesting that an humble address be addressed to Her Majesty for the removal of these judges.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You have touched on a delicate question. It strikes me that the judges should be criticised by the House only on a very serious matter and when that criticism reflects the feelings throughout the country that the judgment is wrong. I humbly suggest that it is wrong to criticise judges except when a judgment does not meet the general opinion in the country and is therefore against the making of the common law, because that is a general reflection of morality in the country.

I am somewhat alarmed by your suggestion, Mr. Speaker, that judges should be easily criticised by the House. That is wrong. They should be criticised only on very grave matters when many people believe that a judgment is incorrect and false.

Mr. Skinner

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You have set yourself a pretty awesome task in trying to define what is moderate and what is immoderate. Those very words are subject to many interpretations. Is the definition to be based on how long somebody speaks about judges and whether he raises his voice? Have you, Mr. Speaker, a list of words that must not be used? Unless you have, I cannot for the life of me see how you can conduct the operation successfully. Can you tell us more precisely how far we may go in this matter?

Mr. Speaker

May I seek to reply at this stage? If hon. Members wait until tomorrow and read what I have said in Hansard, they will find that it is a matter of cold, common sense.

In passing, may I say—and I do not wish to stir up further points of order—that when kind words are used about hon. Members in the House nobody objects, although they might be a little embarrassed if those kind words come from the wrong side of the House. However, if someone makes a personal attack on an hon. Member in the House, an appeal is immediately made to the Chair. In all the time that I have been in the House, I have never known anyone appeal against a kind word about him. Obviously. I want to guard the rule which has been guarded by my predecessors for 200 years. I also seek to serve the House.

Mr. Bidwell

Further to that point of order and your last remarks, Mr. Speaker. Do you not agree that it behoves any hon. Member who wishes to raise the name of another hon. Member, about something that has been alleged to have been written, to give notice of that intention since it must have been premeditated? Is that not the proper and honourable practice to pursue?

Mr. Speaker

We all know the general practice of parliamentary courtesy to each other.