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Friday 29 August 2014

Judge attacks Cameron over hacking trial statement

Prime minister accused of almost collapsing case with his remarks

Matthew Holehouse, Martin Evans and Peter Dominiczak

Published 26/06/2014 | 02:30

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David Cameron leaves number 10 Downing Street yesterday to attend Prime Minister's Questions, where he faced questions about the conviction of Andy Coulson, his former director of communications, in the phone hacking trial. Photo: Rob Stothard/Getty Images
David Cameron leaves number 10 Downing Street yesterday to attend Prime Minister's Questions, where he faced questions about the conviction of Andy Coulson, his former director of communications, in the phone hacking trial. Photo: Rob Stothard/Getty Images

British Prime Minister David Cameron has faced heavy criticism from a High Court judge for almost collapsing the multi-million-pound phone-hacking trial by making a public statement about his ex-No 10 spin doctor Andy Coulson's conviction while the jury was still out.

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Mr Justice Saunders said he was "very concerned" about Mr Cameron's intervention, which came after the prime minister's former director of communications was found guilty of conspiracy to hack phones.

The judge accused Mr Cameron of launching "open season" on the defendant, who was still facing two charges of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office at the time of the statement on Tuesday.

The judge's unusual public criticism of the prime minister angered senior government figures, who privately questioned his decision to speak out.

Verdict

Downing Street said that Mr Cameron had consulted Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General, before making his televised statement apologising for hiring Coulson.

Mr Cameron had taken the "best legal advice before issuing his apology" and was right to make the statement, the prime minister's spokesman said.

The judge said he had considered halting the trial following a petition from the defendants' lawyer over the "ill-advised and premature" comments.

"I don't know whether it was just done in ignorance or whether it was done deliberately," Mr Justice Saunders said.

Coulson's legal team tried to contact Mr Grieve when it emerged that Mr Cameron was preparing to make an apology.

However, they were unable to reach him before the British prime minister recorded the television clip, in which he said he was "profoundly sorry" for hiring Coulson.

The judge said he had asked Mr Cameron for an explanation and was told by Chris Martin, his principal private secretary, that the "prime minister was responding to the guilty verdict on hacking charges that had been delivered in open court".

But the judge said the prime minister had "missed the point" and revealed information the jury had not been told during the trial for legal reasons.

He said: "My sole concern is to ensure that justice is done. Politicians have other imperatives and I understand that. Whether the political imperative was such that statements could not await all the verdicts, I leave to others to judge."

Coulson's legal team made an application to have the remaining charges thrown out, claiming the "astonishing" intervention had led to negative publicity that meant that the former newspaper editor could no longer expect a fair verdict.

The judge said the prime minister's statement, in which he accused Coulson of having lied to him, attacked the defendant's credibility and put before the jury matters that had not been heard in evidence.

After considering the application to discharge the jury, he said he was confident the jury could still reach a fair verdict.

However, after further deliberations, the jury came back into court to say that they were unable to reach majority verdicts on the remaining charges.

The judge then discharged them and the prosecution will announce on Monday whether it intends to seek a re-trial.

Kenneth Clarke, a Cabinet minister, said Mr Cameron's comments were "unwise", adding the thought he may have been in contempt of court probably never "crossed David's mind" because he has no legal training.

Lord Macdonald, the former director of public prosecutions, said that he did not think it was "a risk that the Prime Minister should have run". (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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