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Tuesday, 21 December, 1999, 16:57 GMT
A victory for Parliament

Parliament argued Neil Hamilton should not be allowed to bring the case

From the start, Parliament had argued former MP Neil Hamilton should not be allowed to bring his libel case - now it will be glad he lost.

Clearly, it would not wish to be seen as trying to influence the course of justice or take sides in the affair.

But had the jury swung the other way and found Harrods boss Mohamed al-Fayed had invented the tale of handing envelopes full of cash to the Tory it would have presented Westminster with a serious problem.

On the orders of both the then Attorney General John Morris and the Speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd, lawyers representing Parliament argued on the same side as Mr al-Fayed's QC at hearings to determine whether Mr Hamilton's case should be allowed to proceed.

Gordon Downey: "Compelling evidence" Neil Hamilton took cash
This was because a previous inquiry by Parliamentary Commissioner Sir Gordon Downey had ruled the evidence "points compellingly to the conclusion that Mr Hamilton accepted cash payments from Mr al-Fayed in return for lobbying services".

Both the parliamentary authorities and Mr al-Fayed's counsel argued Mr Hamilton should not be allowed to bring his libel case because it would undermine this verdict.

George Carman QC, for Mr al-Fayed, argued it could "raise serious constitutional questions".

He asked the judges: "Can a former Member of Parliament bring a libel action which would seek to set aside findings about his conduct which have been made by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards?"

They decided he could. High Court judge Mr Justice Popplewell had previously ruled that it was doubtful whether a court would have found Mr Hamilton guilty of taking cash from Mr al-Fayed.

The Hamiltons had hoped to restore their reputation
But had the libel jury ruled in this way, the Palace of Westminster would have been worried.

Article Nine of the Bill of Rights states that the proceedings of Parliament are not to be questioned by any court. This is intended to prevent legal challenges to laws passed by Parliament and a judgement overturning the ruling of a parliamentary committee could have set a precedent.

In addition, had he won, Mr Hamilton would also have almost certainly demanded independent MP Martin Bell stand down.

The former BBC war correspondent stood on an anti-corruption ticket in the Tatton constituency in the 1997 general election.

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