Friday, March 25, 2011

Enjoining democracy

Today is Friday. This means that all around the country, MPs will be sitting in their constituency offices, talking to their constituents, listening to their concerns and acting as an interface between them and the government in order to solve problems. Its a role they take seriously, and a role they do well. Its a largely invisible function, but an important one, and a basic part of our democracy. And while we've never actually written it down anywhere, I think its fair to say that we regard being able to talk to your MP as a basic democratic right.

The UK has a similar culture (of course they do - we got it from them) - but over there that right is under threat. Some courts, in family cases, and ordinary civil cases, have started issuing "hyper-injunctions" prohibiting people from talking to MPs. The practice was revealed in Parliament by the LibDems' John Hemming, under the protecting of parliamentary privilege. And the list of examples he gives is very troubling indeed:

  • a man who was subjected to a gag order after a dispute with social services, extorted by threat of removing his children from him, which prohibited him specifically from contacting his local MP;
  • a woman in state care who is trying to escape it, but whose representatives have been forbidden by the judge from talking to their local MP;
  • a civil case involving a serious risk to public safety, in which a party is barred from talking to the media, MPs, or even non-instructed lawyers; they were given a suspended sentence simply for contacting a lawyer to try and find out if they would represent them
These are people who need help and advice. And that assistance is being denied them by court orders which are arguably a Contempt of Parliament. It is simply obscene. Even moreso when you realise that in many cases, these injunctions are gained by parts of the government seeking to escape scrutiny and accountability for their actions.

Super-injunctions, which prohibit any mention of a case in the media, are bad enough. But these "hyper-injunctions" are an outright attack on democracy. The UK Parliament needs to act, and act now, to protect the democratic rights of its citizens.