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Sub Judice Rule (Mr Speaker's Ruling)

Volume 932: debated on Wednesday 25 May 1977

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I rise on a point of order, Mr. Speaker, of which I have given you notice. I wish to refer to your ruling yesterday on the sub judice rule. In your ruling, which I welcomed, you said:

"This is a serious criminal charge, and if has been the invariable practice of my predecessors and myself, as long as any such criminal charge is pending, not to permit any discussion in the House that might conceivably prejudice it."—[Official Report, 24th May 1977; Vol. 932, c. 1189.]
I stress the words "might conceivably". They have a wide application and they remind us that we cannot anticipate the way in which a criminal trial might proceed.

I suggest that we ought not to discuss matters which, if discussed, "might conceivably" prevent its being a fair trial. One way of discussing matters that could have that result would be for us to attack the character or credibility of witnesses or probable witnesses, whether called by the prosecution or the defence.

I must be careful not to infringe the sub judice rule myself by discussing how the trial in question might proceed, but I believe that I am in order in pointing out that the essence of a charge of forgery is that it alleges intent to defraud. On that issue the prosecution would be at liberty to call the editor, a sub-editor, or any other member of the staff of the newspaper concerned in order to try to establish intent to defraud. Equally, the defence would be entitled to call any of them to rebut any such allegation, especially if the prosecution had not already done so.

If, meanwhile, we in the House attacked any such witness, he would go into court with his reputation already impugned in the minds of the jury, who would have read about the attack, seen it on television, or heard about it on the radio. The witness's evidence would then carry less weight and a miscarriage of justice could occur as a result.

There is the further consideration that, although the civil action is not yet sub judice, its outcome could be influenced by the result of the criminal proceedings and by the way in which witnesses in those proceedings emerge from them. I mention this merely as a further reason for caution in the matter and not as the main foundation of my case.

For the reasons that I have given, perhaps all too briefly—and I am sure that those hon. Members who are awaiting the exciting debate on the Patents Bill will excuse me for entering upon the matter at all—and because further discussion in the House of this matter, which is already sub judice, "might conceivably" prejudice a fair trial of the criminal charge I submit that no further discussion of the criminal case or of the personalities at the centre of it should be allowed in the House until the case is over.

Order. I have a considered reply to give. Does the hon. Gentleman wish to continue with his point of order?

The right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton), with characteristic courtesy and lack of polemic, has raised some important matters. I think that the Chair should consider—

Order. All that the hon. Gentleman may do is to put his point of order to me. He must not argue his case now.

I am coming to the point to order by making a point that I hope will be helpful to the Chair. If the line that can be inferred from what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said were followed, great difficulties could arise in the discussion of many matters over a very long period.

May I quote a precedent to the contrary? You will recollect the Profumo affair in 1963, Mr. Speaker, and also recollect that there was an extensive debate of the security aspects of that affair even though the trials of Stephen Ward and Christine Keeler were pending before the Central Criminal Court and other criminal matters and proceedings took place, including the inquiry under the present Master of the Rolls, Lord Denning.

That seems to suggest that the point raised by the right hon. and learned Member, although seemingly reasonable, is at variance with the practice of the House, and I submit that it would be most undesirable if the House were constrained in its discussions for what must inevitably be a long and indefinite period. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said, the civil proceedings have not yet advanced very far and further proceedings may be forthcoming.

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, West (Mr. Sedgemore) has tabled a Question to the Attorney-General asking whether proceedings for criminal libel are to be taken against one of the persons concerned in this matter. If, Mr. Speaker, you were to rule in the restrictive way suggested, it is logical that the Attorney-General would be unable to answer that Question. I am sure that the House must agree that it is desirable that he should be questioned about that matter.

I am obliged to the hon. Member and to the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton), who did me the courtesy of giving me notice of the point of order. Indeed, he came to see me and submitted his point of view in writing. This has been a great help to me and I am deeply grateful to him.

The House has long taken the view that legal proceedings should not be prejudiced by observations made in debate. It confirmed this view on 20th June 1963 by agreeing to a report on the matter which had been recently issued from the Procedure Committee.

In paragraph 11 of that report the Committee made clear that in its opinion the word "prejudice" covered the possible effect on the members of the court, the jury, the witnesses and the parties to any action. In doing so, however, the Committee defined such possible effects as those by which:
"The minds of magistrates, assessors, members of a jury and of witnesses might be influenced by reading in the newspapers comment made in the House prejudicial to the accused in a criminal case".
This falls far short of ruling out of order all unfavourable comment on the behaviour of someone other than the accused who may hypothetically at some future stage become involved in a criminal case under adjudication.

While, therefore, I see no reason to modify in any way the considered ruling that I gave yesterday—and, indeed, I am grateful to the House for observing it so scrupulously once I had given it—I do not think that it would have been right for me to try to inhibit the House from discussing such aspects of this important matter, which has aroused great interest outside, as do not directly and recognisably relate to the proceedings which are pending. I need hardly add, however, that any comment on the behaviour of the editor, or, indeed, that of any other person in specific relation to the alleged forgery itself would be entirely out of order under the sub judice rule.