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
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.