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Contempt of Court (Amendment)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19th May 1971.

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Photo of Mr Arthur Davidson Mr Arthur Davidson , Accrington 12:00 am, 19th May 1971

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law of contempt in relation to tribunals of inquiry. The Bill which I am seeking leave of the House to introduce has a simple but far reaching purpose. It is to enable the Press, television and radio authorities to comment on and discuss more freely than the present law would seem to allow—the present law of contempt, as the House is no doubt aware, is very vague and imprecise—the subject matters of investigation by a tribunal of inquiry.

The Bill has the most respectable antecedents. It is based, broadly, on the recommendations of the Home Office Interdepartmental Committee which was set up by the previous Government in 1968 to inquire specifically into the law of contempt as it affects tribunals of inquiry. That Committee was presided over by Lord Justice Salmon, and amongst its members were two distinguished Members of this House, the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton). I am privileged to have both of those Members as sponsors of the Bill.

The House may be aware that tribunals of inquiry which are set up under the Tribunals of Inquiry Act, 1921, do not happen every day of the week. They are rare occurrences. But when the Government of the day does see fit to set up such a high-powered tribunal they do so as a result of deep feeling and an expression of public disquiet and unease over some matter or incident which is pre-eminently of public concern and overwhelmingly of public interest. The two recent cases, which are well within the recollection of the House, in which a tribunal of this kind has been set up, were one which arose out of disquiet over the national tragedy of Aberfan, and another which arose from unease over some possible maladministration in a Government Department—the tribunal on the Vehicle and General Insurance matter.

But whatever the precise subject matter of the inquiry may be, the need for an inquiry has invariably been high-lighted as a result of controversy, interviews, discussions, and possibly accusations, bandied about as a result of ferreting about by the Press, television or radio. It seems odd to the public that, though the matters that have received Press and television coverage have become matters of debate and discussion in every home and pub in the country, once a tribunal of inquiry has been set up to discuss just those matters the very same Press and television are prohibited from any further discussion of them.

Because of the concern felt in many quarters about the prohibitive nature of the law of contempt as it affects tribunals of inquiry, the committee of inquiry to which I alluded earlier was set up. Everyone now accepts that there is a need for a law of contempt. Obviously, if a man is on trial before a judge and jury it would be monstrous if the conduct of the trial and his chances of obtaining proper justice were prejudiced or jeopardised by things said or inferences drawn from remarks or comments made other than in the court. His case should be tried in court and nowhere else; certainly not by public opinion or in the Press. But obviously juries, being inexperienced laymen, are subject to all sorts of outside influences. Chairmen and members of tribunals or inquiry are in a different category altogether, and the Salmon Cornmittee recognised this. They are men of distinction and—without being patronising highly trained minds, men of the utmost integrity and experience, and they have been so selected only because of those qualities. It is extremely unlikely that they would be influenced or prejudiced by remarks or irrelevant matters brought up other than in the tribunal of inquiry itself. There has never been a case, to my knowledge, in which a tribunal of inquiry has been prejudiced as a result of something said or done in the Press or anywhere else.

The Bill would enable comment on general matters to be freely allowable in the Press and elsewhere. I accept, as did the Committee, that with the direct interviewing of witnesses different considerations apply. Whilst in general the influence of the interviewing of witnesses would be unlikely in any way to alter the course of the conduct of the tribunal, obviously it would be quite wrong if members of the Press or anybody else used influence to cause a witness either to alter his evidence or to distort his evidence, or to prevent his evidence from being given. So in those cases the Bill would specifically say that contempt of court would apply; but not in any other case of interviewing witnesses.

I accept that the House will regard this as an erudite lawyers' Bill. There is nothing more likely to create a sense of inertia and disinterest in hon. Members, and indeed in the public at large, than anything that smells or savours of a lawyers' Bill. This is not a lawyers' Bill. It is a Bill of vital importance to those who want to see a more open society. It is of vital concern to all those who value and who wish to extend the area of the most valuable freedom of all, which is the freedom of speech.

The Bill would recognise that, if private matters should remain private, public matters which are pre-eminently of public concern should be aired and debated in public and there should never be a suggestion or whisper that matters on which there is a general crisis of confidence are somehow being hidden from the public. It is a matter of fact that there have seldom been suggestions in Britain attacking the integrity, intentions or motives of those who preside over tribunals of inquiry of this sort. It would be against the public interest and against the interests of justice if the public ever came to believe that things were being hidden from them which they had a right and a duty to know about.

In all these circumstances, I hope that the House will give me leave to present this very modest Bill. It does not seek to amend the law of contempt in general, although that is in urgent need of emendation. It seeks to make a significant advance in a small area of contempt.