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Sunday, April 22, 2012

The price of free speech

A few weeks ago I wrote that the decision of the Attorney General of Northern Ireland to bring proceedings for contempt of court against Peter Hain and Biteback Publishing for criticisms in the former Secretary of State's biography of the Northern Irish judge, Judge Girvan (now Lord Justice Girvan), was an attack on the freedom of speech.

Today the Independent on Sunday reveals that this action could leave the taxpayer facing a £300,000 legal bill.

Other politicians have joined in the criticism of the action: The decision by John Larkin, Northern Ireland's Attorney General, to prosecute Mr Hain for "unwarranted abuse of a judge" under a rarely used 18th-century offence of "scandalising the court" caused a political row. David Cameron suggested it threatened "modern democracy", and Sammy Wilson, the finance minister in Belfast, hit out at the use of public money.

"If someone libelled you or me, the expectation would be that if we felt so aggrieved we would risk our own private money in taking the matter to court," Mr Wilson said. "Now why should a judge be treated any differently?"

More than 120 MPs in Westminster, including David Davis, Charles Kennedy, David Blunkett and Alistair Darling, have also backed a Commons motion condemning the move. Mr Hain and his publishers, Biteback, have vowed to fight the case.

The "scandalising" charge they face is so rarely used that in 1899 it was regarded as obsolete. Legal experts predict the Supreme Court will ultimately determine the case's fate. If Mr Hain is acquitted, the state will be left to pick up the legal costs, which are expected to reach £300,000.

Former shadow home secretary, David Davis, is absolutely right when he warns that the case could have "a chilling effect on any comment on anything to do with the judiciary". As he says: "The ability to comment on the judiciary is an important check on the law and the operation of the law. Whatever you think of the comment made by Peter about the judge, of course he can sue if he chooses to, but to have the state step in is astonishing."
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