HC Deb 25 June 1979 vol 969 cc25-8
38. Mr. Christopher Price

asked the Attorney-General when he intends next to meet the Director of Public Prosecutions.

The Attorney-General


Mr. Price

When the Attorney-General meets the Director, will he discuss cheque-book journalism with him with a view to legislating and not leaving the matter with the Press Council? The Council has no teeth and its pronouncements never have any effect. Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that many newspapers and periodicals did a good job in investigating the recent case without resorting to cheque-book journalism? Those—Tory, I may say—newspapers which did resort to this practice thereby uncovered no new information. However, they polluted not only the whole judicial process but the journalistic profession as well.

The Attorney-General

I have made my position clear about the matter.

Mr. Edward Gardner

When my right hon. and learned Friend consults the Director of Public Prosecutions, will he discuss with him the wisdom of amending the present law on committals in order to give to committing magistrates the right to decide whether there shall be publicity in cases where there are two or more defendants and one defendant seeks publicity and the others do not?

The Attorney-General

This is one of the matters which is under consideration. It arose on a Private Member's Bill in the last Parliament. I should like to see the present law maintained for the benefit of exceptional cases where, for example, alibi evidence might become available only by reason of the publicity at a committal. If that has to go, I believe that it should be all or nothing—in other words, all defendants should agree to publicity and if one does not want it and the others do it should not apply. However, consideration should be given to the occasion when one man wants publicity for a genuine reason which he can satisfy the magistrates is a good one—for example, the case of a man in a motorway café at 11 am at the time when the offence is alleged to have been committed. At the table next to him a young child is with a family and that child is sick all over the defendant's shoes. The defendant does not know the family but it is an occasion that would be remembered by them. If that fact comes out on committal, it is likely that the family will remember the occasion and provide the defendant with a good defence or alibi which would otherwise be denied to him. That is the sort of exceptional case in which the magistrates may grant publicity.

Mr. James A. Dunn

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware of the public disquiet and grave concern that is felt about the matter? Many people would find it unacceptable that the Press Council should initiate an inquiry. They believe that if an inquiry is to be held it should be held under the auspices of Government if that is the only method by which the matter can be brought to public notice.

The Attorney-General

In certain cases it is clear that the matter amounts to contempt of court or an attempt to pervert the course of justice. There will also be halfway houses in which it might be better to leave the matter to the Press Council and to journalists generally to put their own house in order. If they fail to do so—and there are other examples—it may be necessary to consider legislation. I remind the House that in the first two cases—contempt, and attempts to pervert the course of justice—if such evidence is available, those concerned can be prosecuted under the existing law.

Mr. Lawrence

Will the Attorney-General discuss with the DPP another long-standing and urgent defect in the working of our criminal system, namely, the requirement that before cases are heard in magistrates' courts the prosecution should provide the defence with a summary of the prosecution case?

The Attorney-General

This is another matter that is before the Royal Commission. I would rather wait until that body has published its report—although, as my hon. Friend knows, some years ago I advocated this point strongly, and still regard it as a good idea.

Mr. Archer

Does the Attorney-General agree that matters which entail simply the assessment of evidence and not public interest factors are usually better left to the DPP? Has he yet encountered the many hundreds of run-of-the-mill cases which purely for historic reasons require a Law Officer's consent? Has he discovered that many hours of ministerial time are consumed to no purpose, time which could be better spent dealing with other matters?

The Attorney-General

I believe that too many of the 41 cases that require a Law Officer's consent need not be dealt with by that officer and take up a great deal of time. On the other hand, a number of other cases, particularly concerning corruption, are better left with the Law Officers.