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Lords bid to scrap rare offence

Lords bid to scrap rare offence

Peers in the House of Lords have called on ministers to scrap the offence of “scandalising the judiciary”. Critics say the law, which makes it a criminal offence to insult the judiciary, has long been subject to ridicule. While there have been no successful prosecutions for more than 80 years, the offence came under fresh scrutiny earlier this year in a case involving former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain. Mr Hain was told he could face contempt of court proceedings after he criticised a High Court judge in his autobiography.

The case was eventually dropped after Mr Hain wrote to Northern Ireland’s Attorney General, John Larkin, insisting that he had not intended to question the motivation or capabilities of the judge. But the case led to a move to scrap the offence in the Lords, with some opponents claiming it could restrict freedom of speech among politicians. Former deputy High Court judge Lord Pannick said:

“This bizarre episode has damaged the reputation of the legal system in Northern Ireland. Surely a former secretary of state, indeed any citizen, should be able to express his views about a judge without being threatened with a prison sentence.”

The independent crossbench peer said the offence was simply a “legal relic” which had “life breathed into it” by the case involving Mr Hain.

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