HC Deb 22 February 1982 vol 18 cc589-90
40. Mr. Christopher Price

asked the Attorney-General if he will seek to amend the Contempt of Court Act 1981 to ensure that matter read out in open court may not be a contempt.

The Attorney-General

If the hon. Member is referring to the issues in Home Office v. Harman, the Lord Chancellor will carry out the promise he gave in the House of Lords during the passage of the Contempt of Court Bill—a promise which I repeated in Committee—to examine the issues after judgment in the then pending litigation. Until that examination has been carried out any proposal for legislation would be premature.

Mr. Price

Is the Attorney-General a "Diplockite" or a "Scarmanite" on this issue? In all justice, given the split in the House of Lords, does not the right hon. and learned Gentleman think that it would be fair for him to ask the Home Secretary not to press for costs and bankrupt the NCCL until the matter has been settled in Strasbourg, where the Government will surely lose?

The Attorney-General

I do not accept the last part of the hon. Gentleman's question. It is interesting that of all the judges who have examined the case—five in the House of Lords, three in the Court of Appeal and the judge at first instance—only two considered that there was a European aspect involved. The case is not really about freedon of the press. It is about the mutual obligation of parties to litigation and their legal advisers as regards documents produced by the other side. When asked whether I belong to one faction or the other in the House of Lords, I must say that I always respect the judgment of the House of Lords and the majority view, if that be the case.

Mr. Archer

Will the Attorney-General at least agree with the comment of Lord Scarman that, as far as possible, a rule of law should be free from anomaly? Does he recognise that the public find it impossible to understand how anyone who has heard a document read out in court may lawfully discuss its contents, excepting only the solicitor for one of the parties?

The Attorney-General

It is so easy to choose, particularly when there are two judges finding one way and three the other, a passage that suits the argument that one wishes to advance. I have read all the judgments and I refer the right hon. and learned Gentleman to the leading speech of Lord Diplock, which sets out the matter clearly and understandably.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

If the Attorney-General is already beginning to think about changing the law established by the House of Lords—and every judge who considered the case agreed that Miss Harman was acting in good faith when she handed over the documents—is it not ridiculous that we should ask the NCCL to pay £25, 000 costs when the law may be changed within a year or two?

The Attorney-General

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Lord Chancellor gave an undertaking to reconsider the matter after the decision of the House of Lords was known. He gave no undertaking beyond that. In this case the Home Office did not insist upon its costs at the trial of first instance. When Miss Harman decided to go not only to the Court of Appeal, where she lost by a unanimous decision, but to pursue the matter to the House of Lords, events followed the ordinary routine, which is that the costs fall upon those who lose.

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