Lord Peter Hain’s maverick act in the House of Lords yesterday, if unchecked, will represent a new low point for the rule of law in this country.
Despite the existence of an interim court injunction forbidding the disclosure in the press of the identities of the parties to pending litigation, Lord Hain got to his feet under the gaze of the television cameras to declare it his “duty” to name the central figure as Philip Green.
He did so under the cloak of parliamentary privilege which ancient concept still has an important role in our democracy. It enables those involved in making our legislation to say things in the course of debate which might otherwise expose them to claims of defamation, criminal proceedings and – most pertinent in this case – contempt of court.
It's a privilege that needs to be exercised very carefully. His Lordship doesn’t seem to have understood that.
I don’t know, any more than the vast majority of people so far, all the circumstances of Philip Green’s lengthy and expensive efforts to suppress the Daily Telegraph’s report – still less the merits of the underlying allegations. It may be that he has acted unlawfully and that it is, or rather will be, in the public interest for all the allegations to be known and followed as the substantive dispute is resolved in court.
It may be that there is a force for change in relation to non-disclosure agreements but whether reform is needed, it hasn’t happened yet and one man amongst hundreds has no individual power to legislate.
For the moment it is – or was – a matter for the courts. Three senior judges doing their best, and probably getting it right, decided that Philip Green’s name should not be splashed all over the media.
What Lord Hain appears to have done is to say “to hell with that – I know better than these judges and everybody else and I am going to do what I believe is right”.
Well, let’s be absolutely clear Lord Hain, you are wrong. The proud little speech yesterday was a contempt of court. It won’t be actionable because it happened within the Palace of Westminster. Outside on the street it would have been a very different story.
It’s an appalling example of a senior figure abusing his rights and privileges and taking the law into his own hands.
I hope the Committee on Standards and Privileges will see fit to act on this and suspend if not expel Lord Hain from the house. Something like this is “one strike and out”. He clearly doesn’t understand the extent of the trust that has been placed in him.
Stable doors and horses, some will say but if this is allowed to pass then next it will be some matter of national security with even worse consequences for our society. It’s seven years since similar actions by MP John Hemming which (rightly) drew a good deal of criticism.
In the meantime, anybody thinking of looking to enforce their legal rights through the proper channels in a civilized and law abiding fashion must now factor in the risk that some loose cannon in Parliament may sweep it all aside because he knows best.
Access to justice is increasingly a privilege of the wealthy and that’s wrong. It doesn’t follow that in front of the judges, money buys ‘justice’. They apply the law as it should be, objectively and independently. What’s needed is a return to access to justice for all, but by lawful means.