Houses of Parliament

Free speech amendments set an example worldwide

Posted by & filed under Campaigns.

The Crime & Courts Bill, currently being scrutinised in the House of Lords, has presented an opportunity for peers to widen the space for free expression in the UK and around the world. English PEN welcomes Lord Lester of Herne Hill’s amendment, abolishing the obsolete crime of ‘scandalising the judiciary’ in England and Wales.

Lord Lester’s amendment abolishes ‘scandalising the judiciary’ as a form of contempt of court, which allowed the state to bring a criminal prosecution for insulting a judge outside the courtroom.  Earlier this year, the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland attempted to use the law to prosecute Peter Hain MP, who had made disparaging remarks about a judge in his autobiography.  The amendment was accepted yesterday, and will become part of the law when the Crime & Courts Bill receives Royal Assent.

The change to the English law will have important knock-on effects elsewhere in the world. Speaking in the House of Lords on Monday, Lord Lester said:

Although abolishing this crime in this country will make very little difference because the law is entirely obsolete, it will make a difference in the rest of the common law world. All the textbooks … say the same thing, which is that although this is an outmoded and archaic offence, there remain many parts of the common law world where it is enforced. The most notorious example occurred in Singapore last year, where Mr Alan Shadrake, who wrote a book criticising the Singapore judiciary’s attitude towards the death penalty, was committed for contempt, sentenced to prison, fined and told to pay legal costs. This gentleman, who is about my age and a distinguished senior writer, was condemned in that way, with the Singapore Court of Appeal applying its view on our case law and this offence. By abolishing the offence today we do not really change much in this part of the world because, apart from what happened in Northern Ireland, it is simply never invoked anymore. However it will send an important message across the common law world.

English PEN campaigned on behalf of Alan Shadrake in 2010, raising money for his medical fees.

Ironically, this amendment will not affect the law in Northern Ireland.  The offence there is known as ‘murmuring the judges’ and will be the subject of further consultation.

This amendment is the latest in a project led by Lord Lester (who is an Honorary Vice-President of English PEN) to remove archaic censorship laws from UK law.  He has previously tabled amendments which led to the abolition of blasphemy, obscene libel, and seditious libel and criminal defamation (which English PEN campaigned for in 2009).

Reform Section 5

Elsewhere on the amendments sheet, Lord Dear (the former Chief Constable of the West Midlands) has tabled an amendment that would remove the word “insulting” from section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act.  This law has led to a number of controversial arrests of people for being rude, even though they were not being aggressive, abusive or threatening.  This amendment has the support of the current Director of Public Prosecutions, Kier Starmer QC, and his predecessor Lord Ken Macdonald QC.  For more information on this issue, visit the Reform Section 5 Campaign website.

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