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Contempt of court: Former Home Secretary condemns 'bizarre' legal action against Hain

David Blunkett, the former Labour Home Secretary under Tony Blair, has stepped into the legal row over the memoirs of a former front-bench colleague, Peter Hain.

Last week it emerged that Mr Hain was to be prosecuted under an ancient and little-used law known as 'scandalising the court'. The action is being brought by the Attorney General for Northern Ireland, John Larkin.

The case concerns a passage in Mr Hain's memoirs, published by Biteback Publishing which is also being targeted by this legal action. Mr Hain was Northern Ireland secretary under the Blair government from 2005 to 2007. In his book, he criticises Mr Justice Paul Girvan for his handling of an important judicial review case.

The book was signed off by both the cabinet office in London and the Northern Ireland office prior to publishing, as is the norm for all political memoirs.

However, it caused a storm when it was published in Belfast. The lord chief justice for Northern Ireland, Sir Declan Morgan said the book was "potentially an assault on the wider independence of the judiciary".

Mr Hain refused to back down regarding his comments though, and further renewed his criticism. This incensed the Attorney General into prompting a legal action based on a law which commentators believe has not been used since the late 19th century.

In his court submission, the Attorney General for Northern Ireland said: "[The remarks] constitute unwarranted abuse of a judge in his judicial capacity that undermines the administration of justice in this jurisdiction, and consequently constitute a contempt of court."

Mr Hain and his publisher have both said they will vigorously defend any action, and their right to free speech.

Entering the row with a speech last night to the annual conference of the Political Studies Association in Belfast, former Home Secretary David Blunkett said: "The notion that in Northern Ireland of all places, a former secretary of state should be challenged under an ancient, little-used and much discredited law of scandalising the court is bizarre," he said.

"I'm pleased that Geoffrey Robertson QC has agreed to take up Peter's case pro bono and to send a message which was reinforced some years ago by Lord Denning, that political free speech should include comment on reports which are no more free from democratic process than politicians who are constantly reminded that they too, are subject to the rule of law," he added.

Related links:

Read more on the story (Press Association)

What is contempt of court? (FindLaw)