John Larkin's contempt of court case provokes political reaction

The Attorney General John Larkin's contempt of court case against the former Secretary of State Peter Hain is due to be mentioned in the Belfast Royal Courts of Justice next Tuesday.

But even before m'learned friends don their wigs, Mr Larkin's decision to invoke a rare aspect of the contempt legislation has been earning him some enemies both at Westminster and Stormont.

Usually contempt of court proceedings are brought because someone is accused of "an act or omission calculated to interfere with the administration of justice".

Classically a journalist like me could be in the firing line if I broke the rules on what can be reported at an early stage of a criminal proceeding and thereby made it impossible for a defendant to receive a fair trial.

But in this case Mr Larkin has relied on a little used interpretation of contempt as "scandalising the court", by denigrating a judge.

What sparked the case was a section in Peter Hain's autobiography "Outside In", in which the former secretary of state hit out at Mr Justice Girvan for ruling against him in a judicial review over his appointment of interim Victim's Commissioner Bertha McDougall.

Without repeating Mr Hain's comments - which a libel lawyer might study with considerable interest - it's fair to say they constituted a pretty outspoken attack on the judge's handling of the case.

However during Prime Minister's questions on Wednesday, both the Prime Minister David Cameron and the former Home Secretary David Blunkett sympathised with Mr Hain, expressing the view that this was a question of freedom of speech which should generally be kept out of the courts.

Furore

Now more than 120 MPs have signed an early day motion backing Mr Hain which was drawn up by another former Home Secretary David Davis.

Perhaps more ominously for Mr Larkin, the political furore has not been confined to London.

Interviewed for "Hearts and Minds" on Thursday, the Justice Minister David Ford appeared reluctant to comment.

But his executive colleague, Finance Minister Sammy Wilson, felt no such constraint, telling the BBC's Gareth Gordon, that he believed if Peter Hain's comments were libellous then it should have been for Judge Girvan to pursue the former Secretary of State for defamation using private money and a private libel lawyer, rather than for the attorney general to take on the case at the public expense.

Given that Mr Wilson's party leader Peter Robinson, working jointly with Martin McGuinness, appointed Mr Larkin as attorney general this is a fairly extraordinary turn of events.

Mr Larkin was appointed in 2010 for a four year term, and is the executive's chief legal adviser.

Mr Wilson is the minister in charge of the departmental solicitor's office which aims to provide "high quality, cost effective legal services" to Stormont officials.

So who will be the judge when these two separate legal arms of the devolved government take a different view of a contentious matter?

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