April 18 2012

Prime Minister David Cameron has stepped into the row over Peter Hain’s book attack on Northern Ireland High Court judge Paul Girvan.

He told the Commons that politicians should be free to criticise the judiciary, saying: “Parliamentary privilege obviously quite rightly allows (MPs) to express their views in Parliament.

“In terms of what is said outside Parliament, let me just say this: there are occasions we all know when judges make critical remarks about politicians and there are occasionally (times) when politicians make critical remarks about judges. To me, this is part of life in a modern democracy and I think we should try to keep these things as far as possible out of the courts.”

The Prime Minister’s comments came after it was announced last month Labour’s former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain will face contempt of court proceedings for criticising Mr Justice Girvan in his memoir.

Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin has been granted leave to prosecute Mr Hain and Biteback Publishing over claims that a passage in the book “undermines the administration of justice”. The case is due to be mentioned at the High Court in Belfast next week.

Former home secretary David Blunkett has already criticised the decision to take legal action and told the Commons he had concerns about the case.

In a question to the Prime Minister, Mr Blunkett said: “Shouldn’t respect for the independence of the judiciary be balanced by the rights of individuals to fair comment on that judiciary?”

Mr Hain has vowed to defend free speech against what his publisher said was an arcane law banning criticism of judges which had not been used in living memory.

His remarks about Lord Justice Girvan’s handling of a case caused controversy in Belfast when the book was published, with the Northern Ireland Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan describing them as “potentially an assault on the wider independence of the judiciary”.

An unrepentant Mr Hain, now shadow Welsh secretary, refused to back down and even renewed his criticism, sparking the legal action by Mr Larkin.