Government scraps 'secret inquests' plan

The MI6 building in London. Ministers have settled cases out of court rather than divulge information held by MI5, MI6 and others

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The government has scaled back plans to hold more court hearings in secret, following criticism from civil liberties groups and Liberal Democrats.

A proposal to allow inquests involving sensitive intelligence to take place in private has been dropped from legislation to be published later.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said the plans had been "refined and improved".

But former director of public prosecutions Lord Macdonald said the concessions did not go far enough.

The BBC's security correspondent Gordon Corera said the government's original proposals had been fiercely criticised amid fears they would undermine the idea of open justice.

While Mr Clarke had made certain concessions, he said the "core principle" that certain cases could be heard in secret on security grounds was to be retained.

The government has argued the Justice and Security Bill will protect national security and allow cases dealing with sensitive subjects to be heard in full.

It says ministers have been forced to settle cases out of court for millions of pounds, including that of Binyam Mohamed and other former Guantanamo Bay detainees, rather than divulge information held by MI5, MI6 and others in open court.

'Hide mistakes'

Closed hearings are already used in limited circumstances, but ministers want to extend the procedures allowing them to all civil cases, including compensation claims and judicial challenges of ministerial decisions.

The headlines suggest that there has been a massive government climbdown - but the core purpose of this very controversial legislation remains.

The courts presently close their doors on national security grounds in very few cases.

If this legislation goes through, more doors will close.

Critics say that would erode the fundamental principle that both sides are equal before the law.

The practical effect, they say, is that alleged wrongdoing would go unexposed.

The security establishment sees it differently.

Secret material relating to these serious allegations isn't getting into the public domain as things stand because ministers settle cases to avoid revealing the techniques, sources and intelligence relationships.

That's why former Guantanamo Bay detainees, who began suing the UK, were paid millions to drop their claims.

The proposed new system means the material would remain unseen but challenged by special lawyers. Ministers say that allows the government to defend itself in front of a judge.

It may all happen behind closed doors - but they argue it would be fair.

If the bill becomes law, special security-cleared lawyers would argue about the material in private, and defendants would also not be able to know the evidence used against them.

Now, following a campaign, Mr Clarke has said the proposals will be watered down and a plan for secret inquests dropped altogether.

It will now also be judges, rather than politicians, who decide whether evidence in civil cases should be heard in secret.

Mr Clarke told the BBC that British judges were very independent and they would have to be convinced there was a genuine "danger" to the public or to informants from evidence being heard in public to justify holding closed sessions.

No country allowed evidence from spies to be heard in public, he told Radio 4's Today programme, as this would lead to "terrorists sitting in the public gallery and taking notes".

"It is less than perfect but at the moment the alternative is silence," he said.

"You either have the judge hearing the evidence in closed material proceedings or, what happens at the moment is this evidence is never given at all. Sometimes you have the agencies and the government having to pay out millions of pounds to settle a claim which the agencies are still saying is unfounded."

The move was backed by Conservative MP and former barrister Robert Buckland who said it could result in "more material being disclosed".

Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, was among those who'd been critical of the plans and a senior party source told the BBC he had "worked incredibly hard within the coalition to ensure these proposals achieve the right balance between liberty and security".


Lord Macdonald, now a Lib Dem peer, welcomed the concessions made so far but said they did not go far enough.

"People whose cases are decided against them on the basis of evidence they have never been allowed to see are still going to feel bitterly aggrieved by this sort of procedure," he told Today. "And some government wrongdoing in the area of national security is going to be less likely to see the light of day.

"So I think the bill still contains much that is offensive to our traditional notions of equal parties adjudicating cases in front of an impartial judge.

Labour said it would be scrutinising the bill carefully to see whether the government was truly meeting the concerns expressed.

"Ever since these proposals to fundamentally change our centuries old system of open justice were first published, the government has been sloppy in what is a complex and sensitive area of policy," said shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan.

Cori Crider, legal affairs director of Reprieve, which campaigns for prisoners' rights, also said further changes were needed.

"It is deeply worrying that our government's response to its complicity in rendition and torture is not to strengthen our legal safeguards but to destroy them," he said. "This bill will ensure that our security services never have to face an open court - or the scrutiny of the media or British taxpayers - even when they are mixed up in the most serious crimes."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    This is the right thing to do. Fogeth playing politics with justic and freedom.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Is this to be portrayed as yet another example of a listening government? I for one do not believe it is, as this government seems incapable of listening to anyone. It won`t listen on the NHS reforms, which have done, and will continue to do so, more damage to this government than any other policies that have proved unpopular. The goverment is discrediting itself more and more everyday,

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Dave 'Flashman' 'Gripper' Cameron, must be enjoying chillaxing with a glass of white wine today.
    Baroness Warsi, Pasty Tax, and now Trial in Secret abandoned within 24 hours. Thank Goodness they've hit the middle classes with the 5% Vat on static caravans.
    What worries me is the timing. Did they actually think Blairs appearence at Levenson was sufficient smoke screen for three U turns.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    I can't believe 'any' government can be this incompetent?... or are they are simply playing out some sick wacky psychological game with the good and 'extremely patient' folk of this once great country? For Goodness sake you lot... get your act together before you sink us altogether... or is that your ultimate intention?

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    You have to ask the question is this government capable of making any decision without having to redress it later?
    It brings to mind the statement "I use to be indecisive but now I'm not so sure."
    All this dose is show the government for what it actually is incompetent.
    What about all the other legislation going through at the moment on NHS reform,police,nurses,and the economy?
    It's shambolic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    1. FishFingers
    Better still, STOP telling the press what is planned before announcing it either.
    Indeed, I've never understood how things are "announced" before they happen, because, as soon as you "announce" something, you have done it. Maybe it works in the same way as people think they can "pre-book", "pre-order" and so on, i.e. doing something before you have done it.

  • Comment number 33.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    I wish I lived in the same dream world as @13 Telanian. The LidDems are simply the velvet glove over the iron fist - it all looks pretty but ultimately, from the NHS reforms through to tax breaks for the Tories friends, a Govt agenda that Margaret Thatcher would have balked at implementing is being driven through. The LibDems are there to make it seem better than it is (or less worse).

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Magistrates should not be allowed to handle contested cases....thats the reform we really need in this country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    I fear we're sleep walking into a quite different authoritarian society where all the freedoms, rights, liberties & systems of justice have passed away in the name of "national security". These things are what we fought 2 world wars over & are what we lectured the rest of the world over for the last 50 years or more. Now the rich so-called elite want to be sure they can have it ALL their way.Sick

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    The next U-turn silly trick up the sleeve will be scrapping of employment laws. Scaring the workforce witless!

    That will be back to Victorain values at a stroke. Another Right Wing old chestnut pulled out of the bag & put on the fire for a roasting

    Good job we have socialist Vince Cable to protect us. But only just. If he was not there to stop it, what would the nasty party get away with?

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    As ususal all the Tories are only concerned about is saving money to enable them to give more tax breaks to their 1% sponsers.They are not prepared to pay money to get a fair justice system no matter how many innocent people are harmed in doing so.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    The best thing about a "TOP SECRET " is that nobody can find

    out how badly managed it is .

    Perhaps this may have had some influence on their decision

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Doesn't go far enough,NO trial of any sort ever should be held in private because justice must not only be done but be seen to be done, otherwise the law has no credibilty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    "Some trials need to be done in secret, but this facility must not be abused!"

    The problem being that given the many errors the secret services have been a party to over the years (calling Saddams WMDS), who gets to decide that the facility is not being abused ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    All of you, please avoid jumping on the victory bandwagon.

    All this story tells us is that the government has 'backed down' by removing the massively draconian parts of the proposals which they knew nobody would go for but included as a strawman to make the other parts look like less of a shaft-deal for the common man.

    This isn't a victory, you've just been placated by a smokescreen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Getting locked up by secret court in on trumped up charges is what goes on every day in regime China. Or placed under house arrest with guards watching through the windows. Even blind men are not exempt. The example is the escape to US by brave Mr Chen

    We don't want secret courts in this country thank you very much, if that's what our misgovernment are planning. Sounds like regime stuff to me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    What terrifies me as a disabled person is if this crowd can be so wrong so often what will become of me over the next few years of welfare reform? They have been warned by many experts that the poorest will suffer under these draconian reforms.
    I am scared.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Some trials need to be done in secret, but this facility must not be abused!

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I am amazed anyone could think these proposals for someone to be tried and probably sent to prison and yet neither the accused or their lawyer have the right to know what "evidence" has been produced against them could in any way be called justice. It is always trotted out if you do nothing wrong you have nothing to fear but if this went thro' you would could not defend yourself against anything.


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