Attorney-General v Jonathan Cape Ltd [1976]

English Constitutional Law

Attorney-General v Jonathan Cape Ltd  [1976]
‘An Interesting Book’ by Claude Raguet Hirst

Public interest, national security and the freedom of speech are key ingredients to a ‘united kingdom’, therefore should any one of those elements become endangered any true sense of democracy would be diminished in favour of state control, and so when a Cabinet Minister chose to keep an open diary of his time in government, he did so on the pretence that it would one day become a published series for public reading. 

Upon retirement the now deceased author had endowed his executors the rights to attain full publication with the support of the Treasury solicitors, whereupon they did so in the hope of releasing sections of the first volume through a leading national newspaper, and while there was an initial collaboration between the executors and the Secretary of the Cabinet, numerous demands to remove what was considered critical text dissolved the partnership into legal argument and subsequent litigation. 

In the first instance the Attorney-General issued a writ preventing publication on grounds of conventional breach of confidence and national safety, while in a second writ the newspapers were subjected to the same restrictive terms in order to cease printing and publishing the planned articles.

In the lower courts the claimants argued that history demonstrated how current and former Ministers served the country in the knowledge that any official discourse was considered secret, and that where permitted for public release such information was typically held to a thirty-year restraining period, while the respondents countered that any information contained within the compiled material was now over a decade old and so posed no real threat to either national stability or the ongoing operational integrity of the Cabinet.

When submitted before the Court of the Queen’s Bench, the court held that the burden of proof rested upon the claimants, and so held that it must be proven beyond any reasonable doubt that: 

1. A breach of confidence had occurred.

2. Public interest required the repression of information.

3. Any need for public disclosure was insufficient to stand against non-publication. 

And so given time to consider the arguments presented it was agreed that despite strong supposition on the part of the Attorney-General, there had been sufficient examination of the final and edited source material to prevent any interference by the court, and that with an appreciation of free speech and the transparency of the author’s intentions, the respondents were free to both publish the first volume and release the preceding articles as and when time permitted, while clarifying to the court that:

“[T]here may be no objection to a Minister disclosing (or leaking, as it was called) the fact that a Cabinet meeting has taken place, or, indeed, the decision taken, so long as the individual views of Ministers are not identified.”