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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:26 pm on 23rd May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Lisvane Lord Lisvane Crossbench 1:26 pm, 23rd May 2019

My Lords, I start from the premise that there should be a comity between the courts and Parliament and that both should be, in the words of Lord Browne-Wilkinson in Prebble v Television New Zealand,

“astute to recognise their respective constitutional roles”.

There are two means of, as it were, keeping the tanks off each other’s lawns. One is article IX of the Bill of Rights, which says that parliamentary proceedings,

“ought not to be impeached or questioned in any Court or Place”,

outside Parliament. Over the years, the judiciary has generally been very careful to ensure that this is observed. The mirror image is the sub judice rule, enshrined in resolutions of the two Houses, which prohibits reference to active proceedings in the courts, subject to the right of Parliament to legislate on any matter and with the possibility of a waiver if, in the judgment of either presiding officer, this is justified.

I should note in passing, as this was something that much occupied me in my former life, that the sub judice resolutions in their present form date from 2001 and are sorely in need of updating. For example, following the Armed Forces Act 2006, there is now no mandatory post-trial review in court-martial proceedings. Moreover setting down a case for trial, one of the trigger points for the rule’s operation, is phraseology no longer used in the Civil Procedure Rules. The application of the rule to tribunals needs to be clarified, and I have long thought that its application to inquests—in effect, treating them as quasi- criminal proceedings—is simply not sustainable.

However, in the issue we are considering today, the sub judice rule is a bit of a red herring. It may apply to injuncted material but only if proceedings are still active; it will not apply to a final injunction unless an appeal is outstanding. The question before us is, I suggest, whether there should be a parallel rule to protect the rights conferred on an individual by the judicial process, and incidentally of respect for that individual’s private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Two particular cases were considered by Commons committees. In 1978, the Committee of Privileges considered the Colonel B case, which has already been referred to, and, in 1996, the Procedure Committee considered the Baby Z case. A more wide-ranging inquiry was undertaken by the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions, which reported in March 2012. Part of the Joint Committee’s consideration was of parliamentary breaches of court injunctions. To what extent they were justified is neither here nor there. They related to people engaged in the popular sports of football and banking, and particularly to sportsmen who, in their private lives, had been a little too sporting.

My noble and learned friend Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood referred to the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Pannick in the Times a while ago. I hope I may be acquitted of vaingloriousness when I say that I was a few years ahead of my noble friend. In my memorandum, as Clerk of the House of Commons, to the 2012 Joint Committee, at pages 191 to 211 of the committee’s written evidence, I set out how the two Houses could deal with the problem. They could pass in effect a self-denying ordinance, on the pattern of the sub judice resolutions, stating the determination of each House to preserve Parliament’s freedom of speech, uphold the rule of law and respect the rulings of the courts, save either for the purpose of changing the law or if the chair had given prior—note, prior—authority for the rule to be set aside if the circumstances warranted it. This would be a high bar to clear. Such a resolution would also have an important declaratory function, which we should not underestimate. The Joint Committee was clearly attracted by this option but, in the end, concluded that there were not enough cases to constitute a real problem that needed to be dealt with in this way.

That was also the conclusion of the Commons Committee of Privileges in 1978, the Procedure Committee in 1996 and the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege in 1999, which was endorsed by the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege in 2013. It also wisely recommended against the codification of privilege in statute.

There we have it: it is a matter of proportionality. If, in your Lordships’ judgment, and that of the other House—and it would be sensible for the two to keep in step—these are events whose frequency and nature give rise to sufficient continuing concern, the means of addressing the issue are to hand.