Doughty Street silk to defend Peter Hain against ‘arcane’ contempt claim

Doughty Street Chambers silk Gavin Millar QC is to defend Labour MP Peter Hain against contempt of court claims after the former Cabinet minister criticised a judge in his memoirs.

Labour MP Peter Hain
Labour MP Peter Hain

The Attorney General of Northern Ireland (AGNI) John Larkin has been granted leave to prosecute Hain and publisher Biteback over a passage in his book Outside In.

Both the ex-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the publisher have instructed London-based RPC, which has turned to Millar to defend what they claim is an ‘

“arcane” and “obsolete” interpretation of the contempt law not used in more than 100 years.

Lord Justice Higgins granted Philip Gilpin, solicitor to the AGNI, leave to bring the proceedings and the case has been listed for review by the Divisional Court in Belfast on 24 April.

The legal action is centred on criticisms made by Hain about Northern Irish Judge Girvan, now Lord Justice Girvan, and his handling of a 2006 judicial review case over the appointment of Bertha MacDougall as interim victims commissioner.

According to the statement filed by the AGNI, the passages in the book “constitute unwarranted abuse of a judge in his judicial capacity that undermines the administration of justice in this jurisdiction, and consequently constitutes a contempt of court” and publication of the passages “create without justification a real risk that public confidence in the judicial system will be undermined”.

According to the Attorney General, the alleged  contempt of court has been aggravated by public comments made by Hain since the book was published.  The Attorney General of Northern Ireland “accordingly considers it appropriate that the author and publisher of Outside In should be punished for contempt of court”.

Biteback managing director Iain Dale said: “I’m advised that proceedings for contempt for criticising judges have been considered obsolete in England and Wales since the end of the 19th century.

“Our lawyers are not aware of any such case having been brought in Northern Ireland in living memory.  As a publisher I strongly support free speech, not least by our elected politicians, and we’ll therefore be vigorously defending this case.”

Hain said: “I’m astonished at this turn of events. I worked harder than anyone as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to uphold the rule of law and judicial independence and delivered the 2007 settlement which helped secure that. If free speech and comment in a political memoir is to be suppressed then people will be entitled to ask: what system of justice prevails?”

As is typical of ministerial memoirs, the manuscript had been preread by both the Cabinet Office and the Northern Ireland Office, neither of which suggested the passage be amended, he added.