Ex-MPs will not have private hearing

A report in The Times today claims that there will be a secret hearing next month to decide whether four politicians accused of fiddling their expenses should stand trial. The hearing “will be covered by blanket reporting restrictions”, according to the newspaper. This seems inherently implausible.

The source for this story is “one lawyer”. He or she is not identified but the only lawyer named in the piece is Gerald Shamash, the Labour Party solicitor who is also acting for the three former Labour MPs accused of false accounting; the fourth defendant is a Conservative peer.

“Essentially, you can’t report anything,” one lawyer said. “It is a pre-trial application and, like any other, subject to normal prohibitions on reporting.”

There seems to be some confusion here. The “normal prohibitions on reporting” referred to by “one lawyer” presumably refers to proceedings in the magistrates’ courts, at which defendants facing serious charges still make their first appearance. The hearing next month will take place at the Crown Court, where such restrictions do not apply.

Mr Justice Saunders may still make an order under the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996 that nothing is to be reported until the case comes before a jury. But we shall not reach that stage for several months – or at all, if the defendants succeed in persuading the trial judge, the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court that the Crown Court has no jurisdiction.

And there is little chance that the judge would make such an order. That is because the legal question of whether the court has jurisdiction cannot possibly prejudice the question of dishonesty, which is the only matter that a jury may have to decide.

Putting it simply, if the defendants are successful there will be no jury to prejudice; if they fail, the jury will not be prejudiced by any discussion of seventeenth century constitutional reforms.

I plan to say more about this on Thursday in my column for the Law Society Gazette.

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