HC Deb 12 January 1981 vol 996 cc745-6
30. Mr. Christopher Price

asked the Attorney-General if he will set out the criteria used to determine whether or not a case of contempt is considered possibly to interfere with the administration of justice.

32. Mr. Whitehead

asked the Attorney-General if he will set out the criteria used to determine whether or not a case of contempt is considered possibly to interfere with the administration of justice.

The Attorney-General (Sir Michael Havers)

Contempt of court takes many forms and each case is considered on its facts and merits. It is therefore impossible to give a single list of criteria which will be applicable in every case.

In general terms, it has been said in The Sunday Times case that: The due administration of justice requires first that all citizens should have unhindered access to the constitutionally established courts of criminal or civil jurisdiction for the determination of disputes as to their legal rights and liabilities; secondly, that they should be able to rely upon obtaining in the courts the arbitrament of a tribunal which is free from bias against any party and whose decision will be based upon those facts only that have been proved in evidence adduced before it in accordance with the procedure adopted in courts of law; and thirdly that, once the dispute has been submitted to a court of law, they should be able to rely upon there being no usurpation by any other person of the function of that court to decide it according to law. Conduct which is calculated to prejudice any of these three requirements or to undermine the public confidence that they will be observed is contempt of court. I would add to that description only that, as in respect of all decisions on the institution of proceedings, I take the public interest into account, including the conflicting interests of the proper administration of justice and freedom of speech.

Mr. Price

Cannot the Attorney-General supervise the Government's prosecution policy rather more closely than he does at present? Is there not a contrast, for example, between the Home Office's action in encouraging the police to hold high-profile press conferences when they arrest a suspect, which inevitably gives rise to press comment which could make a fair trial impossible, and, on the other hand, when its own secrets about special control units are concerned, using contempt proceedings to harass the NCCL and gag The Guardian? Cannot the Attorney-General do something to ensure that there is a logical prosecution process for the Home Office?

The Attorney-General

I feel that I should not comment upon the last part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question. The matter to which he refers is awaiting hearing in the Court of Appeal. As for what has happened in recent days, I have discussed the matter with the Director of Public Prosecutions this morning and I am meeting him again later in the week, by which time I hope that both he and I will have the police report in the case to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. Until we have got that far I do not think that there is anything else that I can usefully add.

Mr. Whitehead

I do not wish to comment on the case that is before the courts. However, will the Attorney-General tell the House whether his approval was sought and his consent gained by the Home Office before the prosecution was brought? If that was not the position, does he think in retrospect that it should have been?

The Attorney-General

It is a long-standing tradition that the Law Officers do not disclose to the House whether their opinion has been sought and, if it has, what it contains.

Mr. Mellor

It is obviously proper that the police should take pride in their work. However, the time for self-congratulation on apprehending a criminal is when that criminal is convicted by the courts, and not when a suspect is arrested. Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that many of us of all shades of opinion found the well-publicised junketing that went on in Yorkshire utterly distasteful? Will he consult the Home Secretary on setting out guidelines for chief constables on what should be done in future similar cases?

The Attorney-General

The obligation to be discreet in what one says so as not to prejudice any prosecution applies equally to newspapers, police officers and ordinary individuals. When that principle is breached, it is necessary always to consider what action has to be taken, whether by means of a reprimand or by means of proceedings for committal for contempt.

Mr. John Morris

I accept the Attorney-General's words and I do not wish to particularise on any recent issue, but will the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept, as he has heard this afternoon, that there is concern about the varying standards of those concerned in the approach to the fundamental issue of ensuring a fair trial? Is he aware of the recent statement made by Lord Elwyn-Jones that when he was Attorney-General he took proceedings for contempt only once although he received many requests to take such action? Is the Attorney-General's policy the same? Will he consider favourably making it a requirement that the consent of the Attorney-General should be obtained before contempt proceedings are brought?

The Attorney-General

As for the events of the past few days, I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General for issuing the letter that had at once the effect that it was designed to achieve. I agree with everything that was set out in that letter. Consultation is something that I shall bear in mind. I am grateful for the right hon. and learned Gentleman's comments.

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