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Sub Judice Rule

Volume 961: debated on Wednesday 24 January 1979

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On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You mentioned earlier that the sub judice rule is one that you have to apply, and we recognise that you are in the hands of the rules, Standing Orders and decisions of the House. But the question arises that, in certain instances, prosecutions which may be of a relatively minor nature, such as those in magistrates' courts, with perhaps a maximum fine of, say, £400, can, because of that rule, lead to a serious limitation on debate and discussion in this House. It could be argued that in some cases such a minor prosecution might be used in order to inhibit discussion in this House and other similar places.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) pointed out, in the case of the Shooter report there has been extensive and wide coverage by people and organisations outside the House. I am sure that you will agree that, since this is the most important assembly in the country, our rights need to be clearly defined and protected to ensure that our debate is of the fullest and widest nature, and that no possible use or abuse can be made of the initiation of prosecutions to inhibit debate.

I should, therefore, be grateful to you for your guidance as to how this sort of ruling can be changed and what methods the House has, not in the long term but to give hon. Members here and now some opportunity in the reasonably foreseeable future an opportunity of changing and debating the rules in order to allow you the sort of flexibility that I know you would appreciate.

I associate myself with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer). Has it ever been canvassed, Mr. Speaker, with the Press Association, that matters of a judicially contentious kind might, as it were, be excluded by a gentleman's agreement with the press? Would that not be one way round the problem? It must be very unsatisfactory that debate in this House can be hamstrung, perhaps for many months, by prosecutions on the lines that we have heard discussed. These are not custody cases; they are matters under summons. It may be a very long time before there is a final determination.

I am obliged to the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Lee) for the way in which they submitted their point of view. May I say, first of all, that because we are the High Court of Parliament we have to maintain the highest standards. What the press does is its business. We in our dealings with the law courts have very special responsibilities that are rooted in history. "Erskine May" tells us that in the case of a criminal case in a court of law, which this case is, from the moment the law is set in motion by a charge being made that case becomes sub judice.

The answer to the hon. Member for Keighley is that it is the House itself, and only the House, which can change that ruling. It could only be done, of course, if opportunity were given for a debate.