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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:11 pm on 23rd May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Anderson of Ipswich Lord Anderson of Ipswich Crossbench 1:11 pm, 23rd May 2019

My Lords, we all have our prejudices. Mine, in common perhaps with the noble Lord, Lord Hain, include unease about the use of non-disclosure agreements in the employment context—particularly where bullying and harassment are concerned—and a strong belief that in corporate, as in public, life, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Hence the importance of dispassionate and disciplined legal analysis, exemplified by the case to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, referred in opening, and in which I declare a remote interest, having been instructed in the past on unrelated matters on behalf of one of Sir Philip Green’s companies, and on behalf of the owners of the Telegraph group.

The High Court favoured the public interest in publication. The Court of Appeal, having carefully weighed what it referred to as,

“important and difficult policy considerations”,

gave precedence to the public benefit in the enforcement of settlement agreements freely entered into by the parties. Legal principles developed over many years were argued out and applied in a way that held the ring, pending a speedy trial by judges with the experience and aptitude to do so.

Of course, the development of the law should be robustly debated and criticised in Parliament. We are in the law-making business. If the judges take a wrong turn, it is open to us to reverse it. One thinks of the long history of the admissibility of complainants’ sexual history in rape trials. No legal topic could, or should, possibly be considered off-limits in this House. However, to ignore a court order and so prejudge the result of a trial is an entirely different matter. What would we think of a Supreme Court that overrode the Court of Appeal on the basis of an interview with a single witness, and without troubling to read the judgments of the courts below? Yet if the noble Lord, Lord Hain, is right, then not just he but any Member of either House would be entitled to do exactly that, because his or her personal morality suggested that it was a good idea.

The noble Lord told the Commissioner that he was motivated by human rights, and on human rights his record is well-known and highly respected, not least by me. But this is an area where rights conflict. There is the right of the public to be informed, certainly, and the countervailing privacy rights of the two complainants mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey, who had signed non-disclosure agreements and supported the application for an injunction. Crucially, there is also the right of Sir Philp Green and his companies to a judicial determination of their legal rights, guaranteed by Article 6 of the European convention.

The noble Lord, Lord Hain, told the commissioner that he was not seeking to challenge the decisions of the judges, and that he totally respected their authority. However, whatever his intentions may have been, the foreseeable result of his actions was to pre-empt their jurisdiction and prejudge the outcome of the case. Were this matter to be considered in Strasbourg, our system would be scrutinised as a whole. At the very least, as we know from the A v UK case, the European Court of Human Rights would need to be satisfied that there are strong mechanisms in place to prevent privilege from being abused. That case would be a hard one to make, given the absence of a Speaker who controls our proceedings, the limited jurisdiction of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the lack of mechanisms for redress.

In his recent lecture to the Commonwealth Law Conference, the Lord Chief Justice observed that for almost 300 years it did not appear to occur to any Member of either House that it was appropriate to use the freedom of speech in Parliament to undermine an order of a court. The practice seems to have emerged in the 1970s—ironically, not long after the sub judice rules were formalised. Since then, the pace has picked up. In his lecture, the Lord Chief Justice identified five cases in the past 10 years, only one of which he discounted as inadvertent.

What is the solution? I freely defer to the experience of those who have been in this place much longer than I have, though I respectfully doubt whether the Lord Speaker’s Written Statement of 29 October, welcome though it was, is enough. I have not heard anyone say that we should subject parliamentary sovereignty to the power of the judges, as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, characterised the argument. However, can we not at least consider the ways in which our code of conduct could be beefed up to give the commissioner jurisdiction over the central issue in these cases, and not just questions of conflict of interest? That would avoid the need for these matters to be ventilated in this Chamber in the context of individual cases, which currently seems to be all we can do to register our disappointment or dismay.

I suspect that we also need to achieve clarity about the application of the sub judice rule, or some broader rule, to matters pending before tribunals; to private proceedings in this House, such as Select Committee meetings in closed session; and to cases in which final orders have been made, such as injunctions or orders for anonymity in criminal or family cases. It is seductive to be placed above the law, and it may be tempting to do nothing in the hope that the problem will not get worse. However, the threat to justice is real. We need to get our own House in order, and I hope we will.