MP Peter Hain is being prosecuted over critical comments he made in his autobiography
A lawyer defending Labour MP Peter Hain against claims he "scandalised a judge" has challenged whether the offence still exists in law.
At a preliminary court hearing in Belfast, David Dunlop also questioned if the case brought by Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin complied with the European Convention on Human Rights.
However Mr Larkin defended his decision to prosecute the former Northern Ireland secretary of state for critical comments he made about a High Court judge in his autobiography.
Appearing before three judges in Belfast's High Court, Mr Dunlop, representing Mr Hain and his publishers Biteback, said one matter he wished to examine when the case went to trial was whether the "archaic" offence still existed.
Mr Dunlop said if it did still exist there remained a question whether it complied with European conventions on freedom of expression. He added: "The respondents dispute absolutely that anything that has been said or done amounts to a contempt of court at all."
Mr Larkin took the contempt of court action against Mr Hain and his publishers over criticisms he made of Lord Justice Paul Girvan in his memoirs.
Addressing the three judges at the half-hour hearing, the Attorney General said it was vital public confidence in the judiciary was protected.
"My lords, I think it is important to begin by emphasising that criticism of judges or of judicial decisions does not in itself constitute contempt of court," he said. "The fair criticism of judges and judicial decisions is not only quite clearly a right, there are also occasions when there may be a duty to do it."
He said the branch of contempt the case against Mr Hain related to was public confidence in the administration of justice, rather than the interest of a judge in protecting his reputation: "Citizens are entitled to have confidence in the administration of justice; they should not be improperly deprived of this entitlement or have it endangered."
The views penned by the Neath MP related to the judge's handling of a judicial review case over Mr Hain's decision to appoint police widow Bertha McDougall as an interim victims commissioner for the region. The full case will be heard on June 19.