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The Solicitor-General : Exactly. My hon. Friend is entirely right : it is the principle that matters, and the ultimate principle is that there should be justice and that justice should be seen to be done.
Mr. Franks : There are many lawyers in the House, including myself, and we take a completely different view. I speak not as a lawyer but as a politician. It is just not good enough if the House does nothing. I have the greatest sympathy for hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner), but there is a principle involved and it is about time that my right hon. and learned Friend stopped speaking as a lawyer and started acting as a politician.
The Solicitor-General : I hear what my hon. Friend says. I have had many pleasant discussions with him, but I must say to him and to the House in all firmness that to ask us to talk about justice as politicians is to go down a very dangerous road. When we consider justice, we stand back as politicians and invite independent courts and wholly independent juries to consider hotly contested matters. Right hon. and hon. Members are failing to remember in how many criminal trials it happens, often necessarily, that allegations are made by the prosecution or defence which are damaging to persons who are not immediately before the court.
The Solicitor-General : My hon. Friend says that we ought to deal with that point. The suggestion before the House is that, in such cases, it would be right and proper not to publish the names of the persons involved. The House has not focused its mind yet on whether any name should be published, or whether only some names should or should not be published.
The Solicitor-General : I ask the hon. Lady to relax for a moment. I am not saying that the country should not consider the matter. It will undoubtedly be one for public debate, and rightly so. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West and the ordeal suffered by the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West will make it a matter, rightly, for public debate. Nevertheless--
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) rose --
Mr. Ashby rose --
Column 241Mr. Ashby : I appreciate that one must approach the matter with considerable caution, and that we cannot go at it in a bull-at-a-gate fashion. It is important to hear the arguments on both sides, and to consider them carefully. I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for replying to the debate in the way that he is doing. I accept everything that has been said so far, but is it really necessary for the persons in question to be the subject of media coverage? I cannot see how it aids justice one iota for that to happen.
The Solicitor-General : What is reasonable and what the law should forbid are not necessarily the same. We have a very wide press in this country, and we count that as one of our freedoms. However, it embraces a whole spectrum--from a deeply responsible press that is extremely careful in what it publishes and which tries to balance one thing with another, to an element that many people regard, perhaps rightly, as frequently scurrilous or simply aimed at making a profit. I suggest, however, that that is part of a free society. Although it has disadvantages, it is a great deal better than the kind of society in which there is no free press, or in which the press is gagged by more and more complex and frequently unworkable rules.
I must move on, because there are one or two other points and safeguards that I want to mention. As I said, safeguards apply in the case of children and of rape victims, and they seem to have worked well. The judge also has the power, where the reporting of one case may affect the interests of justice in a subsequent case, to postpone the reporting of the earlier case.
Professional safeguards apply to those who appear for the prosecution and the defence. The Bar code of conduct requires that those who appear should use their powers as responsibly as the interests of justice may reasonably allow. Paragraph 610 of the Bar code provides, first :
"Counsel must not make statements or ask questions which are merely scandalous or intended or calculated only to vilify insult or annoy either a witness or some other person ; counsel must if possible avoid the naming in open Court of third parties whose characters would thereby be impugned ; counsel must not suggest that a witness or other person is guilty of crime, fraud or misconduct or attribute to another person the crime or conduct of which his lay client is accused"
[ Hon. Members :-- "What about this case?"]--
"unless such allegations go to a matter in issue (including the credibility of the witness) which is material to his lay client's case and which appear to him to be supported by reasonable grounds." I hear hon. Members saying, "What about this case?" I am on common ground when I remind the House that this case was immensely serious. If someone is to be tried for matters as serious as those for which Mr. Beck was
Column 242tried and to receive the condign punishment that Mr. Beck received, it is essential that he should have a fair trial and that he should be given every opportunity to deploy his defence.
Hon. Members are saying, "We all agree, but what about the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West?" I must remind the House of another important principle. If I may say so, I acquit the hon. and learned Gentleman of the misguided approach that some hon. Members are taking. He has deported himself with great dignity. That is the way in which we should deport ourselves. He was not on trial. His opportunity to answer necessarily had to be deferred until the trial was over, and he has now had an opportunity to be heard. [Interruption.] I hear the point that other people do not have the same privilege as hon. Members.
The suggestion is not that we should lift the laws of libel, which would be one other possible step to take, because if we were to do so witnesses would be inhibited and the opportunity for justice would be damaged.
The Solicitor-General : No, I am sorry, but I must conclude. The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West is not on trial. He has had an opportunity to make his point, and I wish to end with one important point. As a result of a number of miscarriages, we are scrutinising our system of justice. I hope that the House will never forget that no one is guilty of an offence unless they have been duly tried and convicted and that everyone is entitled to the same presumption of innocence.
If I may speak for the Law Officers of the Crown, we are scrupulous in bearing that vital principle in mind. We are right to be scrupulous to maintain our system of open justice, to require that people be tried for charges the purport of which is known, and in courts which are open to the public and to the press and can be fully and fairly reported. Despite the undoubted hardship, not only to the famous such as the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West and other hon. Members, but to those who are known only to their families--I know from correspondence that many ordinary people suffer hardship because of what is said and done in court cases--I suggest to the House that we interfere with this at our peril, and at peril to our liberties and system of open justice. I commend that principle most sincerely to the House.
The motion having been made at Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker-- adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned at half past Ten o'clock.
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