Article by Lord Phillips: Closed Material

As a special favour to yourself – a reward for a virtuous life – read the article by Lord Phillips on the way courts accommodate the need that some evidence be kept secret: Nicholas Phillips, “Closed Material” London Review of Books, Vol 36, No 8, 17 April 2014 (currently available here but don’t rely on this link surviving in perpetuity).

As the editor notes, “Nicholas Phillips retired in 2012 after three years as the first president of the UK Supreme Court. ‘Closed Material’ is a version of last year’s Blackstone Lecture, delivered at Pembroke College, Oxford.”

Many of the cases he mentions have been noted here: Chalal, Secretary of State for the Home Department v AF [2009] UKHL 28, and Secretary of State for the Home Department v MB [2008] 1 AC 440 here on 11 June 2009, AF again briefly here on 12 June 2009; A & Ors v. Secretary of State for the Home Department [2004] UKHL 56 here on 17 December 2004 (a case which Lord Phillips rates “as [the House of Lords’] most impressive decision in my lifetime”) and which moved me to quote, with rather spooky prescience, Montaigne; W (Algeria) & Anor v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2012] UKSC 8, here on 20 March 2012; Al Rawi v The Security Service [2011] UKSC 34, here on 14 July 2011; Roberts v Parole Board [2005] UKHL 45, here on 11 July 2005.

The case law led to the Justice and Security Act 2013 [UK], and Lord Phillips describes its passage through both Houses of Parliament from his perspective, focusing on disputes as to the criteria which should apply to any decision to permit the use of the closed material procedure (see now, ss 6(5) and 8(1)(c); it seems that efforts to impose more restrictive conditions on the use of the closed material procedure were unsuccessful). The enacted requirement is (broadly, and with qualifications) that “it is in the interests of the fair and effective administration of justice in the proceedings to make a declaration” that a closed material application may be made, and an application must be granted if the court “considers that the disclosure of the material would be damaging to the interests of national security”.

Lord Phillips concludes,

“There is a danger that familiarity with the use of such a procedure will sedate those who use it against the abhorrence that the need to resort to such means should provoke. I would have been happier had the bill stated that it could be used only as a last resort.”

Procedural fairness and contempt proceedings

Procedural fairness in contempt proceedings is the topic of general interest in Dhooharika v The Director of Public Prosecutions (Mauritius) [2014] UKPC 11 (16 April 2014). Of subsidiary interest is the analysis of the common law offence of scandalising the court.

The appellant, a newspaper editor, had published comments that were subsequently held by the Supreme Court of Mauritius to have undermined public confidence in the independence of the judiciary and the administration of justice.

This offence of contempt requires that, as an actus reus, the act or writing published must carry a real risk that public confidence in the administration of justice will be undermined, and the mens rea is intentionally, or subjectively recklessly, undermining public confidence in the administration of justice [42], [48] – [49].

As to fairness [50]:

” … The Board understands that it may be necessary for the DPP in an appropriate case to take summary action and that a classic form of trial may not always be necessary, but the Board is of the clear view that the alleged contemnor is always entitled to a fair trial and that, depending upon the circumstances, he will almost certainly be entitled to call oral evidence on his behalf, including his own evidence. In the instant case the Board has formed the view that the appellant was, as a matter of practical fact, deprived of his right to give evidence on his own behalf.”

Since the trial was unfair the conviction could not stand [54], but independently of the fairness difficulty, the published comments were not proved to have been made in bad faith [57] (meaning that mens rea was not proved).

The conviction was quashed, but the Judicial Committee observed that the procedure at sentencing had been unfair [60]:

“[The Board] … would have allowed the appeal against sentence on the simple ground that the appellant should have been afforded an opportunity to make submissions in mitigation before a conclusion as to the correct sentence was reached. The transcript shows that the court proceeded to sentence immediately after delivering its judgment on the merits. There were a number of points which could have been advanced on his behalf in support of the conclusion that a custodial sentence was not necessary. The experience of this case shows that the prosecuting authorities should be careful to remind the trial court of the need to hear and consider submissions that go to possible mitigation of the sentence before sentence is pronounced.”

The Board surveys the history of contempt by scandalising the court [21] – [26], and considers its continuing existence, particularly in Mauritius but also elsewhere in the Commonwealth [29] – [41] (especially at [38] and Annex 1 to the judgment).

And (this is me now, not the UKPC) aspects of the law of contempt remain uncertain. Perhaps because flexibility in procedure may be essential if contempt has to be dealt with urgently, statutory procedures leave some areas untouched. Are there occasions when a charging document should be filed and the usual criminal procedures utilised, even though dealing with the alleged contempt may fall only within the court’s inherent power (see O’Brien v R [2014] UKSC 23 (2 April 2014), noted here on 4 April 2014)? How can a charging document be filed if there is no enactment against which the contempt is alleged? If there is no charging document, how should the court record its orders? If civil procedures are adopted to initiate proceedings, to what extend do they colour subsequent steps?

Some points can be stated with confidence because they have been established by case law. As Finn, Mathias and Mansfield say in Criminal Procedure in New Zealand (Thomson Reuters, Westlaw NZ online) at [1.3.3]:

“Both common law and enacted contempt require the criminal standard of proof [footnote: Newman (t/a Mantella Publishing) v Modern Bookbinders Ltd [2000] 1 WLR 2559, [2000] 2 All ER 814 (CA)] and the alleged contemnor has the rights of a person charged. [footnote: Siemer v Solicitor-General [2010] NZSC 54, [2010] 3 NZLR 767 at [53]–[56] per Blanchard, Wilson and Anderson JJ] Neither form of contempt carries a right to elect jury trial and all offences of contempt are subject to maximum penalties which are less than the level at which jury trial could be elected. [footnote: Siemer v Solicitor-General [2010] NZSC 54, [2010] 3 NZLR 767 at [60], [62]–[65] and [67] per Blanchard, Wilson and Anderson JJ, decided under the former law which gave the right to elect jury trial whenever (with a few exceptions, such as those which were mentioned in the Summary Offences Act 1981, s 43, with due respect to Tutu v R [2012] NZCA 294 at [19]) the maximum penalty was imprisonment for more than three months. Now all contempts are category 2 offences.] The judge must identify the act or acts giving rise to the alleged contempt with sufficient particularity to ensure the defendant understands what is alleged, and must give the defendant the opportunity to take legal advice.”

Whether there is still a need for the common law offence of scandalising the court may be debatable, as is illustrated by the points made by Lord Pannick and referred to in Dhooharika at [28]. Our Law Commission is currently reviewing the law of contempt. And there is a particularly interesting paper by Professor ATH Smith, Reforming the New Zealand Law of Contempt of Court – An Issues/Discussion Paper available at Crown Law.

Points to file away …

To do an act “with” the defendant

Policy was an important consideration in interpreting the phrase “to do an indecent act with or upon” the defendant in s 2(1B) of the Crimes Act 1961 [NZ], where the defendant, an adult, induced young people to masturbate in his presence but without any physical contact or overt participation by him: Y (SC40/2013) v R [2014] NZSC 34 (3 April 2014). The policy point is apparent at [16].

Equally interesting is the submission made for the appellant that the interpretation imposing liability on the defendant would amount to retrospective criminalisation, in view of decisions that appeared to suggest he would not be liable. At [27] the Court noted that the earlier decisions did not deal with situations where young people had performed the indecent acts, so this was not retrospective criminalisation.

Civil but contemptuous

The distinction between civil and criminal contempt of court was the basis for holding that extradition on a criminal matter did not operate to bar proceedings for an earlier civil contempt, in O’Brien v R [2014] UKSC 23 (2 April 2014). The distinction between civil and criminal contempt is mentioned at [37] – [40], [42]. It is the nature of the defendant’s conduct that determines the category of the contempt.