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Privacy Injunctions

Volume 727: debated on Monday 23 May 2011


My Lords, I wish to repeat as a Statement an Answer given to an Urgent Question in the other place by my right honourable and learned friend the Attorney-General. The Statement is as follows.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to my right honourable friend on an issue which I know is of considerable concern in this House as well as to the public and the media. The Government believe that freedom of speech is a cornerstone of our democracy, and that it is of the greatest importance that people should be able to discuss and debate issues as freely and openly as possible. This includes those occasions when freedom of speech is exercised provocatively, as it is supposed to be in a free country. Plainly, however, there are also occasions when an individual is entitled to have their privacy protected. There is a balance to be struck and this is reflected in our existing legal framework. The Government recognise the importance of finding the correct balance between individual rights to privacy on the one hand and rights to freedom of expression and transparency of official information on the other. We also recognise that there are widely differing views on what that balance should be. It is in no one’s interest to rush to judgment on this.

The complexity of the issue and the lack of consensus are some of the reasons why the report of the Master of the Rolls committee on the procedural aspects of super-injunctions and anonymity injunctions published last Friday is to be welcomed, and why we will want to take on board its carefully thought-through recommendations. It reaffirms that open justice is a fundamental constitutional principle, and that exceptions to this are permissible only to the extent that they are strictly necessary in the interests of justice. While such decisions will necessarily be made in each particular case dependent on the facts of that case, it does offer a likelihood of some greater clarity.

The report indicates that when some degree of secrecy is necessary, the facts of the case and the reason for secrecy should be explained, as far as possible, in an openly available judgment. It also emphasises that super-injunctions—where the fact that there is an injunction has to be kept secret as well as the substantive issues—are now being granted for only very short periods where secrecy is necessary to ensure that the whole point of the order is not destroyed. We hope that its analysis and recommendations should help to allay concerns that super-injunctions were being granted far too readily and about their potential open-endedness.

Of course, a range of wider issues has been raised by the events of the past few months and especially the past weekend. We take seriously the need to ensure that we have the correct balance between privacy and freedom of expression. Today the Prime Minister is writing to the chair of both the Liaison and Justice Committees and my right honourable friend the chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee recommending that a Joint Committee be established to consider how current arrangements can be improved. Such a committee will be able to use representation of both Houses and the considerable expertise that Select Committees have to examine whether the current arrangements are working and to consider whether we might make any changes that would make things work better.

In the mean time, it is right to emphasise that just as any change to the law is for Parliament, the interpretation of the law is a responsibility placed on the judiciary. Legal mechanisms exist to review individual decisions that may be mistaken. If we believe in the rule of law, it is our duty as parliamentarians to uphold these principles”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for repeating the Attorney-General’s Statement. I agree with a great deal of it. As far as this side is concerned, we agree that there should be a privacy law. Of course, the privacy law has to respect free speech. It involves striking a balance between an individual's right to privacy and the need for free expression.

That, basically, is the law currently. It requires an independent, neutral figure to strike the balance between freedom of speech and an individual's right to privacy. Nobody else can do that apart from the judges, and the judges who have been doing that have been doing it in accordance with the law, not through some invented new law that they are creating.

I completely understand and respect that individual Members of Parliament are entitled to wreck privacy injunctions because they think that they know better, but our system has worked well over the years, with Parliament dealing with laws and the judges dealing with individual cases. I have no idea of the detailed balance involved in relation to the Fred Goodwin case or the case that has been brought to public attention today. I do know that I know a lot less than the judges involved and that they were applying the law. I have no idea, for example, of the extent to which the families of the plaintiffs in those cases were thought to be affected by the terms of the injunction.

I welcome the creation of the Joint Committee. The matter should be looked at. We are getting close to a Rubicon in relation to this. The law is as it is. It is unlikely to be changed substantially because of the European Convention on Human Rights. There should not be this excited state about injunctions that have been granted. Instead, people, including parliamentarians, should comply with their spirit. There is something quite ugly about unpopular people being named in Parliament despite the fact that a judge has thought that they are entitled to privacy.

I have a few questions for the Advocate-General. First, do the Government agree that there needs to be a law on privacy? Secondly, do they agree that such a law must comply with the European Convention on Human Rights? Thirdly, does the Advocate-General agree that the judges are currently simply applying the law as determined by Parliament through the Human Rights Act 1998? Fourthly, what advice does the Advocate-General give to Members of Parliament—Peers or MPs—in relation to wrecking injunctions that have been made by the judges? Would his advice be the same as mine that perhaps it would be better to leave the courts to decide those issues rather than deciding for oneself whether a person should be entitled to what is currently his or her legal right?

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for his response and for his general welcome both to the Statement of my right honourable and learned friend the Attorney-General and to the establishment of a Joint Committee which will obviously look at these matters in much greater detail.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport indicated last week that a privacy law would not be ruled out. However, having set up a Joint Committee, that is very much the sort of issue that we would expect it to consider. The noble and learned Lord is right to say that the European Convention on Human Rights will influence and be material to the shaping of any future law should there be such a change. It is important to recognise that that was not overlooked when the 1998 Act was going through Parliament. As he will remember, having been a law officer at the time, there was quite a focus on the interplay between Articles 8 and 10. Indeed, Section 12 of the Human Rights Act was introduced to encourage and enjoin the judiciary, when considering such matters, to have proper regard to the importance of freedom of expression. Each set of circumstances and each case will be different, but clearly one can only expect and believe that the judges have been carrying out their duties in accordance with their judicial oath. As I indicated in the final paragraph of the Statement, the interpretation of the law is a responsibility placed on the judiciary and we would expect parliamentarians to uphold these principles.

Sub judice conventions exist in both Houses of Parliament and I am sure that anyone who seeks to raise such issues will take care in doing so. Perhaps it would be best to refer to the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, which the Master of the Rolls also quotes in his report. This Joint Committee, reporting in 1999, said that the sub judice rules were needed,

“to strike a balance between two sets of principles. On the one hand, the rights of parties in legal proceedings should not be prejudiced by discussion of their case in Parliament, and Parliament should not prevent the courts from exercising their functions. On the other hand, Parliament has a constitutional right to discuss any matter it pleases”.

In his press conference last Friday, the Lord Chief Justice indicated that he entirely agreed with that, and I do as well. We would perhaps all do well to reflect on those words from a previous Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege.

My Lords, I very much welcome this Statement. I also welcome what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, said in response. However, is it clear whether the Joint Committee will have a remit to examine the practice of Parliament in relation to these matters? Parliament has long had a sub judice rule as a way of protecting the work which Parliament has assigned to the courts from undue interference by Parliament itself in exercising its undoubted right to discuss anything. It is extremely important that that aspect of parliamentary practice should be examined in the light of the present situation. As the quotation from the report of the Master of the Rolls shows, the sub judice rule was very much in the forefront.

This matter goes somewhat beyond the sub judice rule in this sense. The sub judice rule was put in place to protect the decisions which the judges had to make from prior discussion in Parliament, which might prejudice or pre-empt that decision, whereas the feature that we are dealing with at the moment seems to be an attempt to negate the effect of a judgment by using parliamentary privilege for that purpose. The situation is that a judge has decided that the person in question has a legal right to privacy on the matter. The question is whether it is appropriate for parliamentary privilege to be used to damage the effectiveness of that right and, if so, under what conditions, and subject to what rules. This matter requires quite detailed consideration. I do not believe for a minute that the judges were seeking to gag Parliament in any sense. They were seeking to ensure that their position in relation to Parliament was understood.

My Lords, my noble and learned friend raises some important—indeed, fundamental—points. I do not think that anyone is suggesting that the importance of Article 9 is in any way being challenged, but he makes some important observations. As for the terms of reference of the Joint Committee which is to be established, it has been indicated that the Justice Secretary and the Culture Secretary are to liaise with the chairs of the two committees in the other place. Obviously they will bear in mind the importance of this issue in Parliament, but it is also important to point out that the Government are already committed to bringing forward a draft Bill on parliamentary privilege. Given that, as I think my noble and learned friend indicated, there are issues that go much wider than these particular cases, this may well provide an opportunity for those important issues to be gone into in much greater detail—indeed, in the detail which they undoubtedly deserve.

My Lords, I, too, greatly welcome the Statement and the report on which it is based. In recent years, one problem has been that a belief has got about that judges have a wide discretion on whether to grant a super-injunction. The report makes it absolutely clear, in paragraph 1.33, as recent cases had already made it clear, that there is no such discretion. The principle of open justice prevails unless it is absolutely and strictly necessary to depart from that principle in order to do justice in a particular case. That has long been the position and it is very good that it should have been reasserted in this Statement and report. They are obliged to act in accordance with the law as stated; they have no discretion.

The noble and learned Lord is right that they must apply the law as it is. It is important, as the report indicates, that openness is a cornerstone of our democracy and with our judicial proceedings and system. If that is departed from, it can be only in the most exceptional circumstances. The report by the Master of the Rolls and his committee also raises some issues of how that commitment to openness might well be enhanced. Clearly, these matters will, in part, form the discussion of the Joint Committee that is to be set up.

I put forward a Bill some 20 years ago on the freedom and responsibility of the press. I think that the Minister will remember the debate. At this stage, I strongly support the Joint Committee but it is a mistake to think that the privacy issue is about just these sexual cases that come up. An awful lot of cases referred then, and do now, to ordinary folk who get caught up in tragic incidents in their lives. Often, it is a death in the family or things of that nature. That is one factor that privacy needs to address. It is not about just the big sexual cases that the press like to report for money; they also arise in those personal life tragedies. I am in favour of the courts deciding the balance between Articles 8 and 10 of the convention, but we will have to look at this in the wider context not just of sexual issues but of the invasion of privacy of people who have suffered tragedies.

I certainly hear what the noble Lord says and, as he has indicated, the terms of reference are still to be agreed. Without any commitment on whether it might be included, I will certainly draw his comments and the Bill that he previously introduced to the attention of my right honourable friends. It also might be fair to point out that for many years now—long before the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into our domestic legislation—there have been quite strict rules in place on the naming of children in court proceedings. It is fair to say that, by and large, those have very much been observed.

We on these Benches welcome the report, which recognises that where secrecy is ordered it should only be to the extent strictly necessary to achieve the interests of justice. We also welcome the provision of notice to the press of an application of this type and the requirement of an openly available judgment. Does my learned friend—my noble friend—

Does my noble and learned friend accept that Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides for the right to freedom of expression, is qualified? It is that the exercise of that freedom,

“carries with it duties and responsibilities”,


“may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society”.

It specifically refers to,

“the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary”.

Would he agree with me that judicial authority must be maintained? As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said, the court sees the evidence and comes to a balanced judgment, and any attempt to interfere with that, even by the use of parliamentary privilege, simply because a politician cannot agree with the judgment when he does not know the facts, is to be deplored?

My Lords, my noble friend is right to quote at length Article 10. As I said earlier to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, these issues and the tensions between Articles 8 and 10 were considered at considerable length during the passage of the Human Rights Bill and express provision was made in Section 12 of that Act to give further guidance to the judiciary to establish that balance.

The other point that I would make, in substantially agreeing with my noble friend, is that in my experience, in politics and law, unless you have been involved in the case you usually do not know all the facts of the case. Very often that is in terms of sentencing; it is only the judge and the people involved in the case who know all the facts and on the basis of those facts come to the judgment that they make. That is a duty and that is what they do.

Would the Minister underline for the benefit of the Joint Committee that the Law Society and the Bar Council have very useful views to communicate? They are able through their membership to speak authoritatively about this matter. Many of the lawyers who are skilled in this field have a useful contribution to make.

I would certainly agree with the noble Lord. No doubt when the Joint Committee comes to take evidence, the professional bodies, the Law Society and Bar Council, will be bodies that it will want to seek evidence from—as well, no doubt, as from individuals who have much experience to bring to bear on these important matters.

Does the Minister accept that the Bill of Rights and the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840 were passed in ages very different from our own and dealt with circumstances very different from those now relevant? Does he accept that the effect of those Acts very often is to make it possible for a statement to be made in Parliament that would be utterly contumelious of a decision of the courts were it not for the particular privilege thereby conferred? Will he encourage those who sit on the Joint Committee to be bold and imaginative in these circumstances and to see to it that the law of the land is not flouted, save in those rare, almost unique, circumstances where parliamentary privilege should be allowed to cloak such an action?

My Lords, as I have already made clear, it is almost self-evident that the Bill of Rights 1689 and the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840 were promulgated in times very different from today. Notwithstanding that, there are clearly some important principles enshrined in them. Indeed, on numerous occasions, even in recent times, we in this House have sought to emphasise their importance and how much we cherish them. In terms of the Joint Committee and in the opportunity to look much more broadly at parliamentary privilege, that will be an opportunity to consider in detail some of these issues. The Master of the Rolls’ report published last week has a chapter devoted to parliamentary privilege and identifies some of the tensions that are there. All of those elected to the other House and Members of this House take parliamentary privilege very seriously, and if we wish to say anything on matters that are sub judice it should be done only with the greatest of forethought.

My Lords, I, too, welcome the establishment of the Joint Committee. What I really want to ask is whether the new media will be part of the remit, and whether there are ways in which one can restrain publication there. I have a great reluctance in saying that I do not think it is possible; I think we have crossed a Rubicon, and that new technology now means that it is now very hard to restrain publication of matters that invade privacy. Although our courts seek to influence courts in California to have disclosure of names by twitter, the culture in the United States is very different and it is very unlikely that there will be disclosure by courts there. In my experience, even getting them to disclose matters relating to national security issues is difficult enough. The American courts are very protective of freedom of the press. Will the remit of the Joint Committee look at the new media—twitter and the like?

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an obvious but very important issue on the new media, whose relevance has been very obvious to these events. I have to confess that I do not tweet. I may have been one of the last people in the kingdom to find out the subject matter of some of the tweets over the weekend. It would be an issue that the Joint Committee would want to look at, because it is very pertinent to the kind of issues that we are talking about. But just because it makes it far more difficult to police and enforce, that does not make it right to breech an express order of the court. Obviously, if there are means to identify those who did it, the appropriate procedures should be followed.

Does my noble and learned friend accept that in a settled society, the strength of its laws derives from the support of the majority the population? The black code or the death sentence were abolished not only because judges and Parliament abolished them but because the public ceased to support them. Is there not a danger here that we are on the edge, whatever the legal minutiae, of developing laws that the public are not in sympathy with?

That is the challenge to all parliamentarians—to reflect the views of the people. As my right honourable friend the Attorney-General indicated in his Statement, which I read, there are very clearly tensions in the balance between privacy and freedom of expression, and no doubt these will be issues for the Joint Committee to consider, bearing in mind public views on this. As he also said, no matter where that judgment comes down, a number of people will still think that it has come down in the wrong place. But as parliamentarians we have to be alert and sensitive to all these issues.

May I be allowed very briefly to remind the House of one respect in which the events of last weekend were duplicated some 30 years ago in an attempt, in which I was peripherally involved, to get an injunction on the book by my namesake, Peter Wright, called Spycatcher? An injunction was obtained, but it was overlooked that it did not apply to Scotland, and by the time an interdict had been sought there Spycatcher had been widely described in the Glasgow Herald. Some 30,000 copies were already on the streets.

My Lords, I strongly support the suggestion made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, that the proposed Joint Committee should also examine the parallel dilemma—and it is a very difficult one—of the balance to be struck between parliamentary privilege and the need for Parliament to respect the separation of powers and not to undermine the administration of justice. Surely if the Government propose to bring forward a Bill on parliamentary privilege, it is particularly important that this Joint Committee, which is examining such a closely related matter, should have an opportunity to consider that as well, and the Government should have an opportunity to hear the conclusions of that committee before it frames its proposed legislation.

As I indicated, it is a draft Bill, so there will be opportunity to consider issues on parliamentary privilege that go wider than the important issues raised here. The terms of reference of the Joint Committee are not yet established, and it would be wrong of me to pre-empt that, but I will certainly draw to the attention of my right honourable friends the comments made in the Chamber today on the importance of parliamentary privilege as it pertains to this particular issue, and it may well be that in these circumstances the committee may want to reflect on that and have its own input into any future draft Bill.

In his opening remarks, my noble and learned friend referred to consultation with the other place about the Joint Committee. Will he confirm that there will be consultation with this place, the other part of Parliament?

I echo the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, about the relevance of what is going on on the internet. Cyberspace, which is outside the jurisdiction, is very close to the jurisdiction and most citizens can gain access to it. It has a huge bearing on the law, bearing in mind that this has arisen in the past 20 or so years.

My Lords, I endorse those last comments about the importance of the internet and electronic media. That issue will have to be considered. Regarding the establishment of the committee, the indication was that the Justice Secretary and the Culture Secretary would be liaising with the chairs of the Liaison Committee and the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. As Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice, my noble friend Lord McNally, is present, and I am sure that that will ensure that the views of the terms of reference reflected in our exchanges here will be fed into that. I think that it was clear that the committee is intended to use the representation of both Houses and the expertise that exists in both Houses.

My Lords, I welcome the report in the interests of open justice. The issue that I raised last Thursday was part of a longstanding commitment by my noble friend Lord Oakeshott to ensure that the Financial Services Authority publishes a full report on the reasons for the collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland. I believe that the FSA has now agreed to include the matter in its inquiry. I therefore ask my noble friend how the courts are going to ensure that public interest is protected and considered when injunctions are being requested. How will statutory bodies such as the Financial Services Authority be able to investigate when corporate governance procedures may be being breached but the information about that is restricted?

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend would agree that it would not be proper for me to comment on any one particular case. If there is an issue of more general importance, I am sure that it will be possible for these concerns to be fed into the work of the Joint Committee.

Sitting suspended.