The Public has a Right to Know

In the Law Society Gazette today, I look ahead to the hearing next month at which lawyers for three former Labour MPs will try to persuade Mr Justice Saunders that he has no jurisdiction to try them on charges of false accounting.

The judge is expected to order what’s called a preparatory hearing under section 29 of the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996. That would restrict reporting of the arguments.

If necessary, I shall ask the judge to make an order under section 37(3) of the Act permitting the proceedings to be reported.

If the MPs’ claim for immunity is successful, I shall argue, there will be no trial to be prejudiced. If it is not, the publicity given to their claim will have no effect on the question the jury will have to decide – that of dishonesty.

Update: Andrew Stephenson of Carter-Ruck writes:

Another case which may be of interest to you is Rost v Edwards [1990] 2 All ER 641, in which I acted for the claimant. One of the issues which arose in these libel proceedings was whether it would infringe parliamentary privilege for the court to hear evidence concerning the criteria for the registration of members’ interests. In his judgment Popplewell J summarised the position of the then Solicitor General, Sir Nicholas Lyell QC: 

The submission of the Solicitor General, both in relation to the plaintiff’s case and in relation to the defendant’s case, was simple, namely that the Register of Members’ Interests and the practice and procedure relating thereto form a part of the proceedings of Parliament and evidence thereof cannot be introduced.  He observed that the House had set up its own select committee to adjudicate on whether members have fulfilled their obligations in regard to registration.  He accepted that the register is a public document which can be scrutinised by the press but submitted that that does not of itself mean that it is outside the definition.  He accepted that the Register of Members’ Interests could properly be commented on by the press, indeed one of the purposes of having the register was so that the public might be aware of the interest of members, but it was not for the courts to adjudicate on a matter which was necessarily within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Committee of Privileges; and he pointed out the difficulties that might arise where, for instance, a court might take one view of the matter and a committee of the House or the House itself take a different view.

In the event (after quoting Lord Pearce ”I do not know, I only feel”) Popplewell J concluded that ”…claims for privilege in respect of the Register of Members’ Interests does [sic] not fall within the definition of “proceedings in Parliament” and he accordingly ruled that the evidence could not only be heard but also challenged.

As it happened, the case itself was thereafter settled by agreement between the parties, to the apparent disappointment of the Solicitor-General who initially contended that, notwithstanding the settlement, the issue of parliamentary privilege was of such importance that his appeal against the judgment of Popplewell J should nevertheless be heard.  

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