Northern Ireland

Peter Hain says end of contempt case 'victory for free speech'

Peter Hain on the Andrew Marr show
Peter Hain and his publisher said it was a victory for freedom of speech

Peter Hain has described the dropping of contempt of court proceedings against him for criticising a judge as a "victory for free speech".

The proceedings ended at Belfast's High Court after the former Northern Ireland secretary wrote to Attorney General John Larkin clarifying remarks he made about a judge in his memoirs.

Mr Larkin said the outcome would foster public confidence in the judiciary.

"It is a victory for the administration of justice," he said.

"It is important to point out that had Mr Hain provided the explanation and clarification which he now has, either in response to the statement issued by the Lord Chief Justice (Declan Morgan) or indeed in respect to pre-action correspondence, we simply would not have been here."

The decision by the attorney general to bring the case had been heavily criticised by politicians including the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and Northern Ireland's Finance Minister Sammy Willson.

'Measured and appropriate'

Mr Larkin said Mr Hain's most recent letter had been a "measured and appropriate" response.

Speaking outside court, he defended use of the offence of scandalising a judge.

"It is not obsolete, whether it will be replaced is a matter for the legislature.

"My own view is that so much of our human rights, our core human rights, depend upon considerations by judges in courts, and if the public loses confidence in that, something irreplacable is lost and therefore there must always be some protection accorded to public confidence in the administration of justice."

Legal action was taken by Mr Larkin, over remarks in Mr Hain's autobiography, Outside In.

In the book, Mr Hain was critical of one of the judgements Mr Justice Girvan made in Belfast six years ago.

Footnote

The publishers said a footnote would be inserted in a future edition of the book, containing Mr Hain's clarification.

Mr Hain's letter to the attorney general was read out in the High Court in Belfast on Thursday.

In it, the Neath MP said it was never his intention to question the judge's handling of a judicial review brought over his appointment of an interim victims commissioner.

Mr Hain was not in court, but issued a joint statement with Iain Dale, managing director of Biteback Publishing.

"This is a victory for freedom of speech," they said.

"In September we will be publishing the paperback edition of Outside In without changing in any way the section that gave offence to some in the Northern Ireland judiciary.

"We were fully prepared to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary and our lawyers were confident of the outcome.

"But, after the astonishing decision to bring the prosecution, we are delighted that common sense has prevailed and that taxpayers have been saved a great deal of money in legal fees.

They said they were grateful for cross-party support for their case from almost 150 MPs, adding: "There is no doubt that the near unanimous condemnation of the planned prosecution demonstrates conclusively how preciously people guard individual liberty."

More on this story