Tory Peer Ordered To Apologise For Trying To Influence Disgraced Ex-MP Charlie Elphicke's Trial
The former minister Lord Freud was forced to apologise to the House of Lords today (PA)
A Tory peer has apologised to the House of Lords after trying to influence a judge in the case of the disgraced former Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke.
Former minister Lord Freud was found to have breached the Parliamentary code of conduct after an investigation stemming from a letter he signed asking for character references in support of Elphicke in his trial to be kept private.
Lords Commissioner for Standards Lucy Scott-Moncrieff found there was: "An inherent dishonour in Lord Freud choosing to leverage his position as a parliamentarian to seek to influence the trial judge by writing in private to two other senior judges, and in acting carelessly by failing even to consider the constitutional propriety of him doing so.”
Making a personal statement in the upper chamber at the start of today's proceedings, the peer said: "Today the commissioner for standards has published a report into my conduct.
"The report relates to letters to which I was a signatory, to members of the judiciary about references provided to the court to inform sentencing of Mr Elphicke.
"My motive was purely to alert the judiciary to what I considered an important issue of principle.
"However, I recognise it was not my place to do so and should not have added my name to the letter. I apologise to the House and the judiciary."
Elphicke, the former MP for Dover, was jailed for nearly two years last September after being convicted of three counts of sexual assault against two women, during which he allegedly described himself as being "a naughty Tory”.
During his trial a number of character references were submitted, but not read out in court.
After the verdict the media requested they be made public, and in response a number of parliamentarians – including Lord Freud – wrote to senior members of the judiciary raising concerns another more junior judge may do so.
The letter, on headed House of Commons notepaper, was sent in November to Lady Justice Thirlwall, the senior presiding judge, and Dame Victoria Sharp, president of the Queen's Bench Division, and was also copied to Mrs Justice Whipple, who had heard Elphicke's case and was deciding whether to release the references.
They said publishing the submissions to the court "could have the chilling effect and harm the criminal justice system”, adding: "So serious a matter with such significant repercussions also should be considered further and fully by Parliament."
In a second letter to Mrs Justice Whipple the group, which included Tory MPs Sir Roger Gale, Adam Holloway, Colonel Bob Stewart, and ex-environment secretary Theresa Villiers, said "we do not in any way challenge your authority to take the decision on publication”.
But it added: “We only wish you to be aware of the potential impacts of publication and also the concern that some referees are reluctant to make representations at the forthcoming hearing because this will disclose their identity.”
They were however rebuked for their intervention by Ben Yallop, private secretary to the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, who said: “It is improper to seek to influence the decision of a judge in a matter of which he or she is seized in this way.
"Judges must be free to make their decisions independently of pressure or influence from all, including legislators.”
In her report into Lord Freud, the standards commissioner concluded: "I consider that there is an inherent dishonour in Lord Freud choosing to leverage his position as a parliamentarian to seek to influence the trial judge by writing in private to two other senior judges, and in acting carelessly by failing even to consider the constitutional propriety of him doing so.
"I find that by being a signatory to the letters of 19 and 22 November 2020, Lord Freud failed to meet the standards of conduct expected of individual members.
"I therefore find Lord Freud to have breached the Code of Conduct by failing to act on his personal honour.”
In December last year Mrs Justice Whipple agreed to representations from the media to release the identities of the character references.
In response the parliamentarians involved, including Natalie Elphicke, Charlie's estranged wife and his successor as the MP for Dover, published their submissions to the trial themselves.
The MPs involved have also been referred separately to the standards commissioner by Labour's MP Helen Hayes, but that complaint is yet to be completed.