Hain: Larkin 'rejected settlement bids'

Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin twice rejected attempts to settle his High Court action against Peter Hain before they agreed to halt the proceedings in advance of a full hearing, the former Secretary of State has claimed.

Mr Hain said he will disclose a “full and trenchant” account of the case in the paperback edition of his memoirs, Outside In, which are due to be published at the end of the month.

The British Labour MP faced a charge of “scandalising a judge” over controversial comments he made in his book about High Court judge Mr Justice Paul Girvan. But the case was set aside after a compromise was reached last May.

According to Mr Hain the case, which he claimed could have cost the taxpayer up to £300,000, was withdrawn when legal teams agreed a form of words which he said he would have accepted at the outset had Mr Larkin been prepared to discuss the issue.

The former Northern Ireland Secretary said the Attorney General turned down two attempts to settle the case, deciding instead to press ahead with a prosecution. Agreement was finally reached following a process which he claimed was triggered by a telephone conversation.

In an extract from his book he describes the moment which he claimed the Attorney General decided to move.

“Then my phone rang. It was a familiar voice, one I had learnt to trust and respect when Secretary of State, carrying an important but confidential message. If our solicitors could speak privately to the Attorney General’s Office, it might be possible to find a form of words that could produce a solution. But what could this possibly be? I asked.

“After all we had offered that informally through solicitors at the outset and I had subsequently attempted to do so again through the First Minister’s Office. But the reaction then had been intransigence and the launch of a full-scale prosecution. However, the phone call did initiate a process which led the Attorney General to withdraw the prosecution on 17 May, just one month before the trial was due.”

Mr Hain said the “offending” text in the book, in which he criticised Mr Justice Girvan’s handling of a judicial review involving the appointment of police widow Bertha McDougall as an interim victims’ commissioner for Northern Ireland when he was in charge at Stormont. remains unaltered in the book.

Agreement between the two sides was reached after Mr Hain wrote to Mr Larkin clarifying his remarks claiming his words were never intended to undermine the administration of justice in the North.

At the time of the court hearing when the settlement was announced, the Attorney General, who was heavily criticised by MPs on all sides in London as well as some MLAs at Stormont for taking the action, said: “If the matter had been qualified or explained in the way it now has, and only now has, these proceedings would not have been taken.”

Today a spokesperson for the office of the Attorney General said: “We will await publication of the book before deciding whether or not to say anything.”

Meanwhile, Mr Hain has welcomed the launch of a consultative process by the Law Commission to reform the laws, including the offence of scandalising the court.

He said: “I am delighted that the Government has indicated that they will now move to strike out the medieval offence of scandalising a judge.

“At least that is one positive if unintended result out of a bizarre episode which sadly threatened to bring the Northern Ireland judiciary into disrepute.”

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