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.


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?

Mark Devenport Article written by Mark Devenport Mark Devenport Political editor, Northern Ireland

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  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    I recall a successful libel case taken by NI High Court Judge Billy Doyle in relation to a published article about him, he financed his case himself and quite rightly kept his damages award

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    According to SusieFlood, Peter Hain is "a waste of space." I wonder what she is basing her opinion on.

    F.a.o. Mark Devenport: David Davis was never Home Secretary

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Maybe Mr Larkin will look at the other side of this question ie that judges appear to be able to say whatever they like from the protection of the bench without fear of being sued for slander or libel. Who judges the judges?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    UK politicians on all sides are queueing up to defend Mr Hain. When was the last time they were similarly bipartisan? When Damien Green MP was arrested by the Met. police !

    The reason for the outrage is not about free speech, it is about MPs trying to create one law for them and another for us.

    Our MLA's split on sectarian lines as usual.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Blimey, I can't believe that I'm agreeing with something that Sammy Wilson has said.
    If Girvan or Larkin are so outraged then Girvan should be suing Peter Hain privately rather than having us taxpayers pay for this stupid and ill-judged process.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I question how many have actually read the book causing this commotion. I would say very few. This to one side I feel that this is an important point of law, in as much as if a politician rites something in a book he must stand by it just as you or I would have to. If there is substance to what was written then the case will be dismissed. However if there is not............

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I'm surprised this story isn't getting more mileage.

    The AG loves to be loved by the political class here and won't have cared awfully about the Westminster view.

    But if the MLA's begin to turn in on him, he'll be feeling somewhat uncomfortable I'll bet. And yes, it is a bit of a waste of resources that could be better spent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.



    Larkin’s at his work. He’s looking to divert attention from a number of recent perverse judgements in the High Court.

    Why should judges be immune from criticism? Have they something to hide? I suspect they have.

    Payola, perhaps?

    As for Hain, he’s a waste-of-space.




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