Duncan Lewis

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An ancient law on contempt of court would be abolished as it is against the spirit of freedom of speech

Date: (10 August 2012)    |    

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Criticism of a judge by many a disappointed litigants is common but if such grievances were to be published it could mean a jail sentence upto two years for the offence of contempt of the court. The Birmingham Daily Argus who had described a judge as ‘an impudent little man in horsehair’ in 1900 was punished with a fine of £100 plus costs for the mysterious form of contempt of court.
The ancient law which affords special protection to the judiciary may be abolished after a consultation by the Law Commission opening Friday.
The law reform body is investigating the offence, which dates back to 1765, following the attempted prosecution of former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain this year. The Labour MP criticised Lord Justice Girvan's handling of a judicial review application in his autobiography, describing the judge as "off his rocker". Although the charge was dropped, the case provoked a debate as to whether the offence of scandalizing the court was in breach of article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects free expression.
Lord Pannick proposed an amendment abolishing the offence to the crime and courts bill, which has prompted the review.
Scandalising the judiciary, or murmuring judges, as it is known in Scotland, has not been successfully prosecuted in England and Wales since 1931, but was more common in former colonies that had adopted the UK's system of common law.