Law of Contempt

Oral Answers to Questions — Trade and Industry – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 22nd May 1972.

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Photo of Mr Clinton Davis Mr Clinton Davis , Hackney Central 12:00 am, 22nd May 1972

asked the Attorney-General when he expects to receive the report of the committee dealing with the law of contempt.

Photo of Mr Arthur Davidson Mr Arthur Davidson , Accrington

asked the Attorney-General if he will make a statement about the law of contempt; and what plans he now has to seek to amend it.

Photo of Mr Peter Rawlinson Mr Peter Rawlinson , Epsom

The report of Lord Justice Phillimore's Committee is expected to be ready in about nine months' time. I appreciate the interest of hon. Members in this branch of the law, and the committee also is aware of it, But the subject is complex and has never been examined before, and the Government believe that it would be advisable to wait until the report is available before deciding upon any amendment to the law.

Photo of Mr Clinton Davis Mr Clinton Davis , Hackney Central

Does not the Attorney-General realise that this matter cannot brook of nine months' delay and that, in so far as it relates to the activities of the National Industrial Relations Court, it is one of great urgency? Is he not aware that Sir John Donaldson himself indicated that it was not simply a court of law, so that inhibitions on expressions of opinion about the activities of that court, which are necessary at the present time, constitute a great danger to democracy?

Photo of Mr Peter Rawlinson Mr Peter Rawlinson , Epsom

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not confusing matters in this House with the law of contempt, which relates to matters outside the House. It is a court of record like any other, and the present law regarding contempt applies to it at the moment.

Photo of Mr Arthur Davidson Mr Arthur Davidson , Accrington

But does not the manner in which the law of contempt is being applied to the National Industrial Relations Court constitute one of the most serious threats to freedom of speech and freedom of expression for many years? Is it not manifestly absurd that newspapers and broadcasting authorities should not be permitted to report hostile or other comment by trade unionists and others for fear of having the law of contempt invoked against them? Does not the right hon. and learned Gentleman realise that the law of contempt is a totally inappropriate law in regard to industrial relations matters?

Photo of Mr Peter Rawlinson Mr Peter Rawlinson , Epsom

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has not recollected that the law of contempt is that one should not publish what would tend to prejudice current or pending proceedings, and one prejudices such proceedings, as the present law stands, by in any way attempting to inhibit persons from giving evidence. It is very unlikely that the court, constituted in this form, would itself be prejudiced, but witnesses and parties may be.

Photo of Sir Elwyn Jones Sir Elwyn Jones , West Ham South

There is considerable public concern about the aspect of the matter to which my hon. Friends have referred. I am aware of the wide range of matters covered by the inquiry but, in the circumstances, will the Attorney-General consider inviting Lord Justice Phillimore to make an interim report upon this particular and special aspect of the problem, which is causing great concern in Fleet Street and among the public at large?

Photo of Mr Peter Rawlinson Mr Peter Rawlinson , Epsom

I will readily receive any representations which are made to the effect that there is such concern in Fleet Street on this matter. It is important that the law generally should be got right, and the Lord Justice Phillimore's Committee has a great deal to do; the law is complex, and its deliberations will cover all the different courts. I shall, however, consider any representations which are sent to me from Fleet Street that there are difficulties now with regard to this court.

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton

Did not an absurd situation develop when a union had to ask permission to discuss a certain item related to its claim because that claim was the matter of an appeal at the time the union's conference was in existence? Is it not absurd that the trade union movement, quite apart from the Press, radio and television, should be in this situation when dealing with matters of industrial relations which I and my hon. Friends believe are not appropriate to take to law?

Photo of Mr Peter Rawlinson Mr Peter Rawlinson , Epsom

I should not have thought there were real difficulties. The proceedings of the National Industrial Relations Court and appeals therefrom seem to have been dealt with very expeditiously and the limits under the present law to discussion between first instance and appeal are very broad indeed. I should not have thought there was the difficulty to which the hon. Member refers.