HL Deb 01 July 1981 vol 422 cc236-7

2 After Clause 6, insert the following new clause:

("Consent required for institution of proceedings

. Proceedings for a contempt of court under the strict liability rule (other than Scottish proceedings), shall not be instituted except by or with the consent of the Attorney-General or on the motion of a court having jurisdiction to deal with it.").

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I beg to move that this House doth agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 2; and perhaps I may speak at the same time to Amendments Nos. 12, 13, 14 and 16, which of course will be formally moved separately. They all raise the same point. The principal amendment of this group, the new clause, was another amendment moved in another place by the Opposition and not opposed there by the Government.

Perhaps I should begin by pointing out an obvious misprint. The word "made" in the second line of the new clause, as printed on the Paper, is a misprint for the word "rule"—it is the strict liability rule.

The purpose of the clause is to ensure that in England and Wales and Northern Ireland proceedings for a contempt of court under the strict liability rule can only be brought by and with the consent of the Attorney-General or on the motion of a court with power to do so. The effect is that it will no longer be possible for private individuals to move. In view of the anxieties expressed on behalf of the press the Government did not oppose the inclusion of the safeguard.

I am bound to say that my right honourable and learned friend in another place—and I in this place, I think—expressed a constitutional doubt about this particular amendment and I think it was once shared, when he was Attorney-General, but not later, by the noble and learned Lord on the Opposition Front Bench, although I understand that his support for this new clause shows that he has since changed his mind. The reason why I expressed doubts about the constitutional propriety of this is that both in civil cases, and still more in criminal cases, the Attorney-General is one of the parties and therefore to debar the other of the parties, as it might often be, especially in a criminal case, from proceedings for contempt in respect of a contempt which, by inference, must be a contempt which would substantially prejudice his case, is, theore- tically, at any rate, an incompatible duty for the Attorney-General to have to perform. However, the clause has been widely welcomed, and having expressed my misgivings I do not want to press them any further.

The other amendments to which I have been speaking, and to which we shall come in due course, are purely consequential on what I have been saying, but while I am on my feet perhaps I might point out that in Amendment No. 16 your Lordships will see the figure "7" as the numeration on the clause. That will not be the clause now numbered 7 in the print before your Lordships but what it will be if the House accepts the Commons amendments. That slightly alters the numeration of the clauses. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That this House doth agree with the Commons in the said amendment.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, what is proposed in the Commons amendment was approved by many speakers in your Lordships' House when we discussed the matter. The view that I came to was that, in the field of contempt of court where the law, despite the clarity now given to it by this Bill, will not be straightforward, what we are concerned with is essentially the public interest in the integrity of the administration of justice and, on the other side, proper facilities for freedom of the press. In these circumstances the intervention of the Attorney-General, who is essentially the protector of the public's interests, seemed to me, after giving further thought to the matter, to be the right course. There are no political implications in my change of mind, but I believe that the public interest is best served by this additional protection against frivolous, oppressive and certainly vexatious preceedings in the field of contempt. Therefore, we on this side of your Lordships' House agree with the Commons in this amendment.

On Question, Motion agreed to.