Parliament: Freedom of Speech and the Rule of Law - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:17 pm on 23rd May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative 12:17 pm, 23rd May 2019

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, on raising this important issue. I will focus on the sub judice rule. Like my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who is still with us, I do not propose to comment on any particular case.

As the 2012 Green Paper and 2013 report of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege noted, references to privilege may appear archaic and misleading. They mask the importance of Article 9 of the Bill of Rights; it is fundamental to Parliament being able to discharge its functions.

As so often, rights need to be matched by responsibilities. The sub judice rule, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead, stressed some years ago in evidence to the House of Commons Procedure Committee, is a self-imposed rule. Its embodiment in the rules of both Houses has developed over time, with some uniformity now between the two. The first edition of Erskine May made no reference to it. As Eve Samson points out in her study of privilege, it first appeared unambiguously in the 10th edition in 1893, which stated:

“A matter, whilst under adjudication by a court of law, should not be brought before the house by a motion or otherwise”.

The rule has been developed and reported on by Joint Committees and the Commons Procedure Committee. There is a recognition of its importance, not just for comity between the legislature and the courts; as Lord Nicholls said, it,

“goes much deeper than that, because it is inherent in the proper discharge by the courts and Parliament of their separate constitutional roles”.

It is vital that both Houses retain freedom of speech to carry out their functions, but it is essential to the courts in fulfilling theirs that the rule is observed. The courts must operate free of parliamentary interference and must be seen to do so. Judges may well be able to ignore or resist MPs or Peers making comments about live cases, but they need to be seen to be free of such interference.

For reasons of time, I shall make just a few core points. The Motion refers to the right of Members to speak freely in Parliament but, as has already been touched on, the essential constitutional point is that the right exists for the benefit of the House. Members in exercising their freedom of speech need to have regard not only to protecting the rule of law, but also to protecting the reputation and role of the House of which they are Members. There have been various problems with breaches in the past, not least in this House in respect of coroners’ courts. Both Houses have since agreed changes to the Standing Orders. If there is a problem, is it with the rule as embodied in the Standing Orders, is it with Members not knowing the rule and its importance, or is it both? I see no reason why Members should not be reminded regularly of the rule. It should form part of the induction process for new Members. It need not be in the form of repeating the Standing Orders, but rather simply in the form of, “If a matter is before a court—any court—it is best not to raise it”. I would add, “If you do plan to raise it, take advice first”.

There is also a case for considering how we deal with the rule. The difference between the two Chambers is in the position of the Speakers. The Speaker in the House of Commons can intervene in a way that the Lord Speaker cannot. The briefing note for the debate reminds us that it is open to any Peer to move,

“that the noble Lord be no longer heard”.

That is a blunt weapon and depends on a Member of the House recognising that the rule is being broken, that it is being broken inappropriately, and being quick- witted enough to get to their feet to move the Motion, which itself is debatable. I think we need a more robust way of dealing with transgressions along the lines indicated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood. For that reason, I would favour the matter being referred to the Procedure Committee. Rather than coming up with any particular solutions today, that is the route to take, and the very fact of the committee considering the matter and inviting comments will itself raise awareness of the rule. My question to my noble and learned friend Lord Keen and the noble Lord, Lord McFall, is this: do you not agree?