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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:22 pm on 23rd May 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Whitaker Baroness Whitaker Labour 12:22 pm, 23rd May 2019

My Lords, it is with great trepidation that I venture, as a non-lawyer, into this debate with so many distinguished experts, but I congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, on calling it as it concerns a fundamental aspect of our democracy. I have three short points for consideration.

I may be convicted of simplism, but my starting point is that law is not only for lawyers, and perhaps it is not even primarily for lawyers, any more than water is for water engineers. It is one of the essential protections of the citizen. It is for the people. Of course that does not mean that citizens are necessarily able to interpret or advise on the import of the law, but it is for them.

Secondly, the law as it stands is never quite coterminous with justice. It is our best shot at justice at one time and in one context. I think this must be so or the law would not be amended and reinterpreted as culture and values change. Non-disclosure agreements may be a case in point. What I look for in the law as a citizen, before redress, is first the correct attribution of responsibility for harmful acts. Among other things, that seems to me to be about establishing accountability.

My third point concerns the role of the rule of law—which of course I wholly support, on the basis above—in its crucial underpinning of democracy. My understanding is that it protects the citizen against exploitation or oppression by more powerful agents. It protects minorities against majoritarian bias, for instance. Thus it upholds the dignity of our fellow human beings, in particular through human rights law.

Looking at the conflict between a legal injunction and the conduct that is our subject, I am driven to think that the vulnerable citizen is not Sir Philip Green. Allegations of acts for which, I think, we would all agree that responsibility should be attributed were prevented from being disclosed. Accountability was not possible. The wrong conduct was protected.

We think, of course rightly, of the rule of law as essential to democracy. In so doing, we have put democracy as the primary objective. We do not say that democracy is essential to the rule of law. I am not sure that it is, unfortunately. So when a legal decision does not serve democracy, it is in a different place from those laws and judicial procedures that preserve rights.

I would not presume to question a court order, but there is a balance to be struck between juridical decisions and constitutional freedom to expose injustice. I submit that that balance lies in the exercise of parliamentary privilege, including in this case, and that it should not be undermined.