Peter Hain faces contempt of court charge over book

Peter Hain on the Andrew Marr show
Image caption Peter Hain: "I am astonished at this turn of events"

Former Labour Cabinet minister Peter Hain is facing contempt of court proceedings over forthright criticisms he made of a judge in his memoir.

John Larkin, Attorney General for Northern Ireland, granted leave to prosecute both Mr Hain and Biteback Publishing.

It is claimed a passage in the book "undermines the administration of justice".

The ex-Northern Ireland secretary said he would defend free speech.

The publisher claimed the case was based on an "obsolete" law banning criticism of judges.

It claimed the legislation had not been used in living memory.

Mr Hain's remarks about Lord Justice Girvan's handling of a case caused controversy in Belfast when the book was published.

Mr Hain, now shadow Welsh secretary, said: "I am astonished at this turn of events. I worked harder than anyone as secretary of state for Northern Ireland to uphold the rule of law and judicial independence, and delivered the 2007 settlement which helped secure that.

"If free speech and comment in a political memoir is to be suppressed, then people will be entitled to ask: what system of justice prevails?"

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan described his remarks as "potentially an assault on the wider independence of the judiciary".

Mr Hain refused to back down and renewed his criticism, sparking the legal action by Mr Larkin.

The contempt action was granted last week by Lord Justice Higgins and is listed for review by the Divisional Court in Belfast on 24 April, the publisher said in a statement.

The Attorney General's court submission said the remarks concerned the appointment of Bertha MacDougall as interim victims commissioner.

It claimed they constituted an "unwarranted abuse of a judge in his judicial capacity that undermines the administration of justice in this jurisdiction, and consequently constitute a contempt of court".

Biteback managing director Iain Dale said: "I am advised that proceedings for contempt for criticising judges have been considered obsolete in England and Wales since the end of the nineteenth century.

"Our lawyers are not aware of any such case having been brought in Northern Ireland in living memory. As a publisher I strongly support free speech, not least by our elected politicians, and we will therefore be vigorously defending this case.

"As is normal in the case of memoirs of former cabinet ministers, we submitted the manuscript of the book to the Cabinet Office and the Northern Ireland Office for their comments in advance of publication.