Legal Proceedings (Imputations)

Oral Answers to Questions — Trade and Industry – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19th March 1973.

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Photo of Mr Evelyn King Mr Evelyn King , South Dorset 12:00 am, 19th March 1973

asked the Attorney-General if he will introduce legislation defining the privileges of learned counsel, with particular reference to the degree to which they are permitted, during the course of a legal proceeding, without adequate evidence to impute corrupt or scandalous behaviour to a third person not a party to the proceedings and not represented.

Photo of Mr Evelyn King Mr Evelyn King , South Dorset

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that this Question does not refer exclusively to the Poulson case, scandalous as some of its aspects are? Is he further aware that in my constituency counsel sought to defend a girl accused of theft by "mugging" the case and by making a charge of sexual assault against a person not represented in the court who was not aware that the charge was to be made? There was not a vestige of truth in it. This sort of thing can imply a serious miscarriage of justice and it is on the increase. Can my right hon. and learned Friend take steps to prevent that sort of injustice from arising?

Photo of Mr Peter Rawlinson Mr Peter Rawlinson , Epsom

I cannot accept the facts which my hon. Friend has given without the details. If he affords me the details of the case, I shall ensure that they are considered by the appropriate body. However, it is a matter of public policy that there should be absolute privilege for counsel, judges and witnesses in the administration of justice, just as there is absolute privilege for any Member of the House who refers to any person or any body in the proceedings of the House. The court has a discretion to exclude scandalous or irrelevant questions, and there is a very strict duty on counsel to exclude questions solely to insult and annoy. If my hon. Friend has a specific case in mind and can give chapter and verse for it, as I hope, I shall ensure that it is considered.

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

Will the Attorney-General nevertheless have another look at this question, because it seems that allegations have been made in the Poulson case which are not accurate? On the other hand, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that any political covering-up of genuine scandal and corruption should not be countenanced by anybody, because corruption in local authority matters is very serious and needs to be rooted out?

Photo of Mr Peter Rawlinson Mr Peter Rawlinson , Epsom

I note and agree with the final part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question. However, in the administration of justice counsel, if properly instructed, may have to ask questions and make inquiries and even allegations. That is part of achieving the proper administration of justice.

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

While counsel must guard against being made the channel for questions which are intended only to insult or annoy either the witness or any other person, is it not the case that if there is relevant evidence as to a matter in issue which counsel thinks a judge or jury may accept, and if counsel has instructions from a solicitor to produce it or to put it in cross-examination, it is clearly the duty of learned counsel to do so?

Photo of Mr Peter Rawlinson Mr Peter Rawlinson , Epsom

I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. It is very important that counsel should fearlessly, if properly instructed, present his client's case, and that may mean cross-examining witnesses and making suggestions to them. Provided he does that with responsibility, and provided it is based on the instructions given to him by a solicitor, he is properly exercising his duty.