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Contempt Of Court (Proceedings)

Volume 463: debated on Monday 4 April 1949

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asked the Attorney-General why the recent proceedings against a newspaper for contempt of court were not undertaken by the Director of Public Prosecutions rather than at the instance and expense of a private individual; and whether, to avoid the odium and possible injustice which may attend private prosecutions in such cases, he will give an assurance that in future matters savouring of contempt in similar circumstances will be considered by the Director of Public Prosecutions with a view to proceedings at the public expense.

Under the existing law, it is the right of a private individual to initiate proceedings for contempt of court if he is so advised. Immediately following the publication to which the hon. Member refers, the Director of Public Prosecutions was informed by the legal advisers of the accused person to whom the alleged contempt referred that they were proposing to institute proceedings in respect of it on behalf of their client, and asking for the Director's assistance in so doing, which he accordingly gave them. The Director of Public Prosecutions is always prepared to consider action in regard to any question of contempt relating to criminal proceedings which is brought to his notice, or of which he becomes aware, and the assurance for which I am asked is already carried out in practice.

Without impugning in any way the desirability of allowing to private individuals the right to have their wrongs redressed, may I ask whether it would not be far better in cases of this kind if the assertion of the public principle involved were undertaken by the public authority, rather than left to the advisers of one who is under trial on a serious charge and who must be to some extent influenced by his position?

The matter is not altogether an easy one. Under the Prosecution of Offences Act, 1908, the Director of Public Prosecutions may take over the conduct of criminal proceedings initiated by a private prosecutor, and assuming proceedings for contempt are within that Act—as I think myself they are—the Director would in a proper case be entitled to take them over. But, as the hon. Member will appreciate, proceedings for contempt may prejudice the accused person to whom the contempt is related by attracting further publicity to the matter; therefore, where proceedings for contempt are initiated by the advisers of that accused person, who know how best to deal with the matter in the way least prejudicial to what is likely to be the eventual line of defence, the Director has to exercise great discretion in intervention.

Is it not the fact that in a case of this kind a contribution towards the taxed costs of the aggrieved party is, in fact, made by the Crown, which partially meets the point made by the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg)?

Well, no. In this case an order for costs was made, and the costs will be recovered against those who were found guilty of contempt.

Can my right hon. and learned Friend say whether it is the case, as has been stated, that the expenses in these proceedings are, in fact, being borne by another newspaper?

I understand that to be the fact, but my Department is not officially concerned with that.