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Courts: Super-injunctions

Volume 727: debated on Thursday 19 May 2011


Tabled By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to ensure that the public interest is taken into account in the granting of super-injunctions.

My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay, and with his consent, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, the Government recognise the importance of finding the right balance between individual rights to privacy on the one hand and the right to freedom of expression and transparency of official information on the other. The Government will await the report of the Master of the Rolls’ Committee on the use of super-injunctions before deciding on next steps.

I thank my noble friend for his reply. Does he accept that every taxpayer has a direct public interest in the events leading up to the collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland? So how can it be right for a super-injunction to hide the alleged relationship between Sir Fred Goodwin and a senior colleague? If true, it would be a serious breach of corporate governance and not even the Financial Services Authority would be allowed to know about it.

I do not think that it is proper for me from this Dispatch Box to comment on individual cases, some of which are before the courts.

I agree with that and the extent to which one should not use privilege to go against the terms of court orders. To what extent are the Government considering how much the hearings in which super-injunctions or indeed any privacy injunctions are granted are open to the press? One of the problems is that people do not know what the process is. The press are reliable when directed not to disclose what goes on in criminal trials. Why can they not be present when secrecy injunctions or super-injunctions are granted?

That is an extremely interesting question, one I hope that the Master of the Rolls has been considering and one to which he will give the answer tomorrow—I think.

Would the noble Lord accept that, of course, the judges take the public interest into account at the moment when deciding whether to grant a super-injunction? Would he also accept, as has been said so often, that the public interest in this connection is not to be equated with what may be of interest to the public?

That goes to the nub of it. Quite clearly, what is of interest to the public can include areas which intrude into private life. Again, we are looking carefully at these matters. The fact that there is so much public discussion and debate means that it has been sensible to get the Master of the Rolls to look at these issues. When we have the full knowledge of his deliberations, we will make statements on steps forward.

Will my noble friend be good enough to tell us how many super-injunctions have been issued and are extant? Hugh Tomlinson QC, the leader in privacy law, tells me that the Ministry of Justice has no idea. Perhaps the Minister would send a runner down to the Royal Courts of Justice and find out exactly how many there are. The Times says 30; other newspapers say 800.

I have to confess that the Ministry of Justice does not have a figure on the number of super-injunctions. I understand that the Ministry of Justice statistician, a post I was not aware of—

The noble Lord, Lord Bach, has more experience on this. The chief statistician is looking into the matter. We hope to be able to give those figures shortly.

My Lords, is not a right to a private life and respect for privacy an essential, indeed defining, characteristic of a free society? Of course, there must always be an over-ride where there is a connection between private behaviour and the fulfilment of public responsibilities, including voting and speaking in Parliament. In that connection, is it not intolerable that important sections of the media, in pursuit of a commercial agenda in competition for getting more titillating material to increase their sales, think nothing quite regularly of bribing informants, of surreptitious surveillance and photography, of tapping telephones and of using the methods normally associated with the activities of a secret police in a totalitarian society? Is this not a national disgrace and should not Parliament and the Government face up to their responsibilities and legislate on the issue?

I think I was with the noble Lord right to the last bend, there. Of course, in a free society we have to recognise those rights that he has just recognised, but also in a free society we recognise the need for a robust and free press. The noble Lord laid down a catalogue of sins, which throws a challenge to our press. I know that noble Lords on all sides of the House want to defend a free press, but the press has a duty to put its own house in order to see whether some of the faults that the noble Lord outlined should not be more robustly dealt with by the self-regulation that the press claims to be so proud of.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that Section 12 of the Human Rights Act strikes a balance between free speech and privacy—