NORTHERN Ireland’s most senior judge last night accused former Secretary of State Peter Hain of undermining justice after he launched an extraordinary attack on a leading judge.
In a highly unusual public statement from the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan said that provocative comments by Mr Hain in his memoirs were “potentially an assault on the wider independence of the judiciary”.
Sir Declan said that Mr Hain had made “serious allegations impugning the integrity” of one of the province’s most senior judges, Lord Justice Girvan, who is currently presiding over the murder trial of PSNI officer Stephen Carroll.
The current row relates back to a 2006 court case in which Sir Paul found that Mr Hain had broken the law in how he appointed Bertha McDougall as the interim victims’ commissioner.
Mr Justice Girvan found that Mr Hain had appointed Ms McDougall because of “an improper political motive” and that his officials had provided “partial, misleading and incorrect information” to the court.
In Mr Hain’s book, published on Monday, the current Labour shadow secretary of state for Wales devoted two pages to the judge who had found against him.
“Instead of simply dismissing out of hand the judicial review reference for the sectarian political ploy it was, Judge Girvan flamboyantly treated it all very seriously indeed,” he said. He went on: “It was a pantomime absurdly given credence by Judge Girvan.”
Mr Hain said that he “thought the judge off his rocker” and claimed that the then attorney general, Charlie Faulkner, privately agreed with him. He also accused the judge of “high-handed and idiosyncratic behaviour”.
And Mr Hain even said he had wondered whether the judge’s legal opinion had been motivated by displeasure at some of Mr Hain’s tax policies.
“I did wonder whether some history explained the eccentricity of the judge, or even whether in common with other high earners he had been unhappy about my reforms of the property tax system...”
Although Mr Hain eventually endorsed a recommendation to promote Sir Paul to Northern Ireland’s Appeal Court in 2007, he said in the book that he had considered blocking the appointment because Sir Paul had been “going out of his way legally to damage me”.
High court judges rarely comment outside of court and eschew controversy. However, in a sign of the reaction Mr Hain’s comments have provoked in the judiciary, Sir Declan’s office last night released a strongly-worded statement of rebuke to the former secretary of state.
The statement said that the 2006 case had “raised important and serious questions of constitutional law, public appointments, the Ministerial Code and the provision of incorrect information under the Freedom of Information Act.
“The judge identified a number of serious questions in respect of the challenged decision-making process and the way in which evidence had been produced to the court in response to the challenge.
“The Scott Inquiry [set up in response to Sir Paul’s judgment] identified a number of significant shortcomings and made a number of important recommendations for the future.
“At no time since the judge’s initial decision in 2006 has Mr Hain made any official or disciplinary complaint impugning the judge’s integrity in his conduct of the case.
“Nor did the secretary of state’s notice of appeal raise any ground of appeal alleging that the judge had acted improperly, idiosyncratically or in a partisan way. On the hearing of the appeal no challenge was made in respect of the competence or integrity of the judge or the manner in which he conducted the case.”
The statement added: “The Lord Chief Justice considers it highly regrettable that Mr Hain now seeks to call into question the honour and integrity of the trial judge who, in accordance with his oath of office, was duty bound to decide and did decide the case in accordance with his entirely independent judicial assessment of the case in the light of the evidence and arguments presented to him at the time.
“He is seriously concerned that a judge should be publicly subject to such unwarranted and wholly inappropriate remarks arising out of the discharge of his judicial role.
“The comments impact not just on a single judge but are potentially an assault on the wider independence of the judiciary which is a principle underpinning our democracy.
“There is a statutory obligation on those in ministerial office to uphold judicial independence. In this instance however it is difficult to regard the remarks as anything other than undermining and unhelpful to the administration of justice in Northern Ireland.”