NI Attorney General: “Citizens are entitled to have confidence in the administration of justice”

Conveniently, neither the Northern Ireland First or deputy First Ministers, nor either of their juniors, were available to the NI Assembly on Monday to answer Jim Allister’s pointed question on their continued confidence, or otherwise, in the “statutorily independent” NI Attorney General, John Larkin.  [As open and transparent as possible! – Ed] 

There’s been no such reticence from others.  The NI Finance Minister, the DUP’s Sammy Wilson,  has criticised the cost of the Attorney General’s contempt of court proceedings against the former Secretary of State State for Northern Ireland [and Wales, etc! – Ed], Peter Hain, MP.  There’s more on Peter Hain’s comments and the original court case here.

The DUP deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, MP, has also been criticising the NI Attorney General

“I think it does no good for Northern Ireland,” Mr Dodds told the BBC’s Sunday Politics.

“I say to John Larkin, the Attorney General, that he should step back, reconsider and withdraw this misconceived motion that he’s bringing to the court.”

But in the face of such concerted political and media pressure, John Larkin is demonstrating his independence, as well as the independence of his office.  And as Sam McBride notes in the News Letter, in a Belfast courtroom yesterday, he won the first round.

Mr Hain did not have his wishes granted on the one issue decided yesterday — the date of the trial.

Counsel for the former secretary of state requested that he be allowed eight weeks to prepare affidavits as “figures engaged in public life” wished to submit written statements of support for Mr Hain but they were busy people who needed time. Mr Hain’s lawyer suggested a mid-September date for the trial.

The Attorney General said that Belfast’s High Court had heard many complex cases and he saw no reason why it could not be decided sooner than that.

Presiding judge Lord Justice Higgins decided, after taking several minutes to deliberate in private with the other judges, Justices John Gillen and Ronald Weatherup, to give Mr Hain’s team four weeks for affidavits and fix a trial date of June 18 19.

And, from a separate News Letter report, we have the Attorney General’s outline of the case against Peter Hain and his publisher.

At a review hearing yesterday Mr Larkin stressed that criticism of judges or judicial decisions does not in itself constitute contempt of court.

He said: “The fair criticism of judges and judicial decisions is not only quite clearly a right; there are also occasions when there may be a duty to do it.

“This branch of the law of contempt that relates to the authority of courts seeks to protect confidence in the administration of justice rather than, unlike the law of defamation, addressing the individual interest of a judge in protecting his or her reputation.”

The Attorney General pointed out that this public confidence should not be equated with a “blind or misplaced faith”.

Taking an abstract example, he contended that declaring a corrupt judge to be corrupt was likely to improve the administration of justice by leading to their exposure and removal.

But wrongly levelling corruption allegations at a judge risks damaging public confidence, he said.

Mr Larkin added: “Citizens are entitled to have confidence in the administration of justice; they should not be improperly deprived of this entitlement or have it endangered.” [added emphasis throughout]

Peter Hain’s, and his publisher’s, legal representative offered this in response

[Belfast barrister David Dunlop] told Lord Justice Higgins and Mr Justices Gillen and Weatherup that there were significant implications for freedom of expression and freedom of speech.

Mr Dunlop identified issues over whether the particular “archaic” contempt offence alleged by the Attorney General remains in existence under common law.

Even if it does, the barrister suggested it may not be compatible with the European Convention of Human Rights.

“The respondents dispute that anything said could be considered possibly to amount to contempt of court at all,” Mr Dunlop said.

He revealed that a range of depositions are to be filed in support of Mr Hain “from figures who are engaged in public life”.

Let’s hope we get to see that list of “figures who are engaged in public life”…  As to the legal arguments, that will be for the courts to decide.

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  • Dec

    ‘John Larkin is demonstrating his independence’

    Remind us again who’s paying for Larkin’s day in court?

  • cynic2

    As this case is at trial I will just say this. Sometimes lawyers have to take popular decisions that annoy a lot of powerful people (or not so powerful in the case of Hain)

    They are accountable for those decisions post facto but its important that we let the case proceed and the Courts come to their decision on the evidence and the law. I am sure that all those ‘figures engaged in public life’ will be of assistance on both issues

  • cynic2

    popular should of course read ‘unpopular’

  • cynic2

    “Remind us again who’s paying for Larkin’s day in court?”

    we are. Whether or not it is sensible will be seen when we find out the verdict.

  • Lionel Hutz

    I’ve had my doubts about whether it was right to take this case. I think Hain’s comments were scandalous but I’m still not sure if it was in the public interest to take this case. But politicians routinely lambast judicial decision, often without showing any insight into why the decision was made. After hearing the MPs abusing parliamentary privilege to affect a judicialprocess, I’d be inclined to stick it up them.

    And I also doubt that if Dominic Grieve had taken such a cours, would Cameron on have criticized him

  • Dec

    Sensible or not, others should spare us the hogwash about Larkin’s ‘independance’.

  • Granni Trixie

    I honestly was shocked when I first read What Hain said about the Judge and his decision,the terms he used as much as anything. More than that I was left with an impression that he had contempt for N. Irish society.
    Whether taking him to law is the correct remedy I simply am not sure.

    I do think He has a brass neck trying tryiing to portray his words about the judge as a freedom of expression issue or a ‘brave’ standing up to the judges. Let’s remind ourselves that what was being challenged originally was a gov dept advertising for one person and the panel appointing FOUR. To many this was was anOther example of the cost of sectarian decisions. I wonder would his fellow MPS be so quick to gang up in bully boy fashion if they really knew these facts. put it another way:would they get away with appointing 4 people to do the work of I across the water? Thinking this way I actually thought it was ‘brave’of Judge Girvin to stand up to the FM and DFM,a sign of welcome change in the system.

  • Pete Baker

    Granni Trixie

    “Let’s remind ourselves that what was being challenged originally was a gov dept advertising for one person and the panel appointing FOUR. To many this was was anOther example of the cost of sectarian decisions.”

    Not quite. That was a subsequent case taken against OFMDFM. And rejected on the basis that the power-sharing arrangements are were “a fragile flower which requires careful tending”…

    The original case here resulted in the 2006 High Court ruling that Peter Hain “acted for an improper motive” when appointing Bertha McDougall Interim Victims Commissioner and was “in breach of the Ministerial Code of Practice” and that the then Secretary of State “approve[d] and sanction[ed] the swearing and filing of an affidavit” that “was ambiguous and failed to disclose all the relevant material pertaining to the appointment”, a course of action that resulted in Mr Justice Girvan ruling that “the respondent [Hain] failed in his duty of candour to the court.”

    There were subsequent referrals, a Scott Report, and appeals which I tried to outline here.

  • Granni Trixie

    Impressed at your detailed knowledge,I stand corrected …though still think Hain is a weasel (if I get a card for this hope someone explains the colour system to me). I suspect the phrase “failed in his duty of candour to the court” by Girvan got to Hain hence his rude remarks about the judge. Do MPs who have jumped to Hains defence know all this?

  • Granni Trixie

    Btw, I usually have strong reactions against anyone using terms which are insensitive to mental health issues eg commonly people say somebody or something is “mental” …similarly Peter Hain Has used such terms to convey his opinion of Judge Girvin. an own goal .

  • Granni Trixie

    Should have said: the expression used by Hain about the judge was that he was ” off his rocker” . Now I can see some of you saying that I am being politically correct but put it another way: is this any way for a SOS to describe anyone?

  • Pete Baker

    Granni Trixie

    It’s the power of archives and Baconian histories. 😉

    I think what really got to Hain was that the then Mr Justice Girvan got London involved – by referring the case to the then [UK] attorney general, Lord Goldsmith.

    I should also point out that, as I noted here

    The subsequent Scott Report found that “the appointment was indeed, as Girvan J found, politically motivated”, but “the Secretary of State and those involved in the drafting and swearing of the two affidavits acted in good faith and did not intend to pervert or obstruct the course of justice.”

    There was, apparently, a “misguided” “senior civil servant” and the “demanding and competing pressures of work” to blame.

    Nevertheless, Hain battled on [in abstentia]. Only to find the Appeal Court upholding the original ruling that the appointment “was not lawfully made”.

    As for the question of other MP’s knowledge, or lack of it, of the case itself. I couldn’t possibly comment…

  • Pete Baker

    Btw, that sequence of events helps to explain more fully the NI Attorney General’s action.

    Hain painting himself as the victim implicates [through the due process of the case] more than just the now Lord Justice Girvan in Hain’s imagined conspiracy.

  • andnowwhat

    Some say that Westminster politics are not reflected here in NI but IMHO, Larkin has made a right Jeremy Hunt of himself.

    At our expense, I might add

  • Pete Baker

    Well, you haven’t been paying attention then, andnowwhat.

  • andnowwhat

    Peter Baker

    In the modern world, Larkin has endless avenues to espouse his hurt. I wish he would do it at his own expense

  • Reader

    Granni trixie: Now I can see some of you saying that I am being politically correct but put it another way: is this any way for a SOS to describe anyone?
    I’m not normally a person much given to name calling, but surely we need some way of dealing with the fact that many of the people who advance in political or professional life are narcissistic, obsessive, manipulative, arrogant or just plain stupid, and it’s reasonable to attribute bad decision making to the root cause, if we think we can see it?
    Otherwise we live in a world of euphemisms. (“Ugandan Discussions”, “Tired and Emotional”, “A courageous Decision”, “Economical with the truth”)

  • “I usually have strong reactions against anyone using terms which are insensitive to mental health issues”

    Well said, Granni, terms of abuse relating to mental health and disability should be added to the Slugger no-go area.

  • “he won the first round.”

    Not really a surprise if you’re a referee as well a boxer.

  • wild turkey

    “Not really a surprise if you’re a referee as well a boxer.”

    Nevin, nice one. kind of chimes with HL Menckens definition of a judge

    “A judge: A law student who marks his own examination papers”

    There are a myriad of reasons why a reasonable person might be minded to hold the entire “justice” system and legal profession in contempt. [edited moderator]

  • Lionel Hutz

    Perhaps wild turkey has the blueprint for a better justice system in mind