22 August 2006 Session 2005-06 No. 12
APPLICATION OF THE SUB JUDICE RULE TO PROCEEDINGS IN CORONERS' COURTS
Speaking on the publication of the Procedure Committee's report on the Application of the Sub Judice Rule to Proceedings in Coroners' Courts, the Chairman of the Committee, Rt Hon Greg Knight MP said
There have clearly been cases in the past when Members have been discouraged from pursuing important policy issues connected to a particular case because the case itself was ongoing. This should not happen. Our recommendations would allow Members to raise in Parliament and with Ministers policy matters relating to cases before the courts more frequently than in the past. At the same time we recommend that the principles behind the sub judice rule, that debate in Parliament should not prejudice individual cases and that Parliament should not try to do the job of the courts, should remain in place.
We have looked particularly at how the rule affects coroners' inquests. Delays in holding inquests can mean that Members cannot raise issues of public concern in Parliament for months or even years. We recommend that where delays of that order are expected, the Speaker might exercise his discretion to allow debate. We have also heard arguments that in cases, such as the London bombings of 7 July 2005, which raise issues of national importance, Parliament should not be the only place where those matters cannot be debated. Here too we believe that greater use of the Speaker's discretion is the way forward.
Summary of the Report
Parliament's sub judice rule effectively prevents debate on individual cases while they are active before the courts. It is set out in a resolution which was agreed to by each House in 2001. Our predecessor Committee reported on the resolution as a whole in March 2005. In our report, we endorse many of the conclusions of the previous Committee. We trust that an early opportunity will be found for the House to consider both reports.
We have concluded that coroners' courts should remain within the scope of the House's sub judice rule. This is justified firstly by the risk of prejudice to specific inquests and secondly on the grounds of comity and non-interference with the judiciary. We do not, therefore, recommend any change to the wording of the resolution. Sometimes, matters raised by an active case deserve debate despite the rule. We believe that the Speaker's discretion to waive the rule should be exercised where appropriate. The need for debate must be established and balanced against the likelihood of causing prejudice.
In our view, debates on policy matters connected to an ongoing inquest (particularly where the inquest has been adjourned) could be allowed more frequently. If that is to happen, a clear distinction must be maintained between policy matters and the details of a case and the Chair must be in a position to take effective action to enforce the terms of the debate. We have examined whether it would be practicable to establish a later 'trigger point' for the application of the sub judice rule than the opening of an inquest, but we have been forced to conclude that there is no such alternative point.
During our inquiry, the Government published proposals for reform of the coroners' system. The proposals include the creation of a Chief Coroner's Office, which we recommend should be given the responsibility of providing information about inquests to House authorities.
We welcome the recent administrative improvements that have been introduced by the Table Office, but are concerned that some Members leave the Table Office with the impression that there is no further course of action available to them once a case has been found to be sub judice. We recommend that the Table Office should issue a concise guidance note for Members on sub judice issues. This could be based on our own draft guidance note.
Under the terms of the resolution, the chairman of a select committee has the power to waive the sub judice resolution in respect of the committee's proceedings. It is our strong view, however, that chairmen should make every effort to consult the Speaker before exercising their discretion.
Finally, our attention was drawn to apparent breaches of the sub judice rule in the House of Lords. Our predecessors' report strongly supported the existence of an identical resolution in both Houses and recommended that the two Houses should consider jointly any proposal for change. We agree with this recommendation and were therefore concerned that in practice the rule appeared to have been implemented differently in the two Houses. We welcome the efforts made by the House of Lords authorities to ensure that the rule is implemented in the same way in both Houses.
Copies of the Report may be purchased in The Stationery Office Bookshops or ordered from The Stationery Office by telephone (08457 023474). The Report is also available on the Committee's website (via www.parliament.uk/proccom).