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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:59 pm on 23rd May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Trevethin and Oaksey Lord Trevethin and Oaksey Crossbench 12:59 pm, 23rd May 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, although I have the misfortune to disagree with his conclusion. My view, with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Hain, who obviously acted in what he considered was the proper way, is that this was not a proper use of parliamentary privilege. It might be instructive for me to say a little more than some other speakers have about the course of the relevant litigation with which the noble Lord’s comments were concerned because it might indicate, when one understands what happened in that litigation, just why it was inappropriate to use parliamentary privilege in effect to determine the outcome of that litigation when it was heading towards a speedy trial in the Court of Appeal, at which detailed arguments would be advanced to both sides by leading counsel who are eminent in the relevant field.

If the noble Lord had read the Court of Appeal’s judgment before saying what he said in this Chamber—we know that he did not because he said so to the commissioner—he would have learned the following things, among others, about the litigation. Five complainants were directly involved. At the court’s instigation they had been contacted. Two out of the five had said that they supported Sir Philip Green’s application, or his company’s, for an injunction. That is a striking fact that reminds one that NDAs can be regarded as beneficial by both parties to a settlement agreement, not merely by the party who is the subject of allegations of inappropriate behaviour.

Secondly, the judgment informs the reader that these NDAs permit legitimate disclosures, including any report that any complainant might wish to make to the police or other appropriate authority of criminal misconduct. That seems a relevant fact. The reader will also find that the Court of Appeal gives careful consideration to the statutory context and to the reasons given by the judge of first instance for permitting disclosure of relevant matters pending trial.

The reader will also find that the Court of Appeal, having lucidly and carefully explained why it doubted the correctness of the judge’s handling of the matter, ultimately decided that the disclosure should be prohibited pending speedy trial because:

The Judge has ... left entirely out of account the important and legitimate role played by non-disclosure agreements in the consensual settlement of disputes”.

In coming to that conclusion, the Court of Appeal expressly made detailed reference to an instructive report by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee, which recognised the beneficial part NDAs can play in facilitating consensual settlement. Everyone, not only lawyers, knows that in general terms settlements are to be encouraged. They save money and time, and they avoid a great deal of harassment and distress. Of course, settlements and NDAs within them can be abused, but generally speaking they are to be encouraged.

The Court of Appeal made an interim order restricting or prohibiting disclosure, but also directed that the matter should move at speed towards a trial. At that trial detailed arguments would have been put by both sides of the case concerning the function of NDAs and whether, in the long term, it is desirable for there to be a general recognition that NDAs are worthless because they can be ignored with impunity. There would quite swiftly have been an authoritative judgment of great assistance not only to lawyers but to anyone concerned with this area. What in fact happened, of course, was that the noble Lord’s intervention, which was I think in breach of the sub judice rule, did not merely influence the outcome of the litigation, but in effect determined it.

Some further steps were then taken in the litigation that I will mention briefly, because time restricts me. There was a hearing before Mr Justice Warby at which Sir Philip Green’s lawyers made it clear that they were going to pursue the question of who disclosed his name and other matters to the noble Lord, Lord Hain. The judge did not dismiss that suggestion immediately. Instead, he took steps to bring it to the attention of the Lord Speaker so that he could, if he so chose, make representations on behalf of Parliament. The prospect came into view of a court having to consider an application for an order compelling the noble Lord, Lord Hain, to disclose his source on pain of being found in contempt of court. I suspect that that would not have happened, for all sorts of reasons, but the fact that that prospect came into view might indicate just how unfortunate it is for litigation to be derailed in this way.

Almost inevitably, there was then a discontinuance of the proceedings in circumstances in which there had been no adjudication. That left the judge with the very difficult task of having to sort out issues of costs without knowing who had won. All in all, if noble Lords read that sequence of three judgments, they will see that the litigation was derailed in a way that I think is fairly characterised as the course of justice being perverted.

There are clearly cases in which it would be appropriate for a parliamentarian to disclose matters that are subject to an injunction. Such cases would normally involve the parliamentarian giving careful and conscientious consideration to the course of the litigation and deciding that the course of justice had been perverted. I respectfully suggest that this was not one of those cases.