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 119.

    dispite this the tories are still as determined as liebour to ensure our human attoricties never have t6eh chance to be judged by the people they claim to do it for.
    Once again we see the government allowing british attoricties to never be shown let alone those responcible to be taken to court.
    David before you judge other countries check your dirty washing it stinks worse than syrias does

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    113. Rick
    "Nobody is above the law of the country - not even the secret service and the Government...... We're British - not Yank."
    Sorry to disillusion you - you are very much mistaken.
    Government set itself & it's security services above the law long ago, I take it you know what carte blanche means! That is exactly what government (your "representatives") gave to certain people years ago.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    "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."

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    There should be no secret trials. Where there are genuine national security concerns, issues should be addressed on a case-by-case basis. The day a secret trail takes place is the day justice dies (always assuming it hasn't happened already).

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    We would probably throw up if we knew what really goes on behind closed doors.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    Re: 110 johnstuartmill
    Re: 109 Peakeen
    GCHQ staff finished for the day have they!
    Be careful you don't end up finished like Gareth Williams - and he was one of their own. Too many lies for far too long. They may work for you - but just for a little while, please reflect upon what millions laid down their lives for, what millions more ended up crippled for, & what thousands were tortoured for!

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    Nobody is above the law of the country - not even the secret service and the Government. Otherwise you end up as corrupt as the US and it's 'rendition' process to use loopholes in order to break the Geneva Convention on use of torture. We're British - not Yank.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    98 cont/ We are wedded to the USA, for some reason the UK government follows the fractured and facist logic of the US government.
    When the only way to get a confession, any confession from another human being is by torture, all it really illustrates is the paucity of both your intelligence and your argument. When truth is under threat, manufactured truth for political expediency leads to anarchy

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    Re: 107. OLDCOMP
    How do you know that the UK is under considerable threat from spies & terrorists, is it something new or has that always been the case? Might it not be that terrorism or the threat of it is useful to some!
    You would no doubt give up freedoms and rights for security?
    Our "leaders" & their merry men have long been hacking away at the nations foundations. Any old excuse will do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    You have protected the rights of mostly non-citizens (a contradiction in terms) and so endangeredthe life and liberty of the majority of British citizens.
    No rights are absolute, we have to take a utilitarian view: the greatest good for the greatest number

    Pat yourselves on the back, for being glad we are all less safe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    I just hope these "civil liberties groups" are equally successful in getting our enemies to reveal their plans and the names of their covert operatives in open court.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    andrew A truly sad delusional world you live in. If you bothered to read my post, I stated that in the US some of these laws are already enacted. In effect there is a component of martial law in the "land of the free"
    The right to free assembly no longer exists, protestors against the US & Canadian Government are beaten up by the police for daring to question appalling decisions by the estate

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    I don't understand why pressure groups are getting their knickers in such twist over this issue. The UK is under a considerable threat from spies and terrorists. Anything that withholds information from these organisations has got to be a good thing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    Like any law, once brought in the practice of holding trials 'in camera' would creep. It would not be long before some jobsworth council official or parking company would have the power to take you to a secret court.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    5 Minutes ago
    What about the brave people who put their lives on the line infiltrating these groups? Recently an undercover agent prevented another attack and probably saved hundreds of lives


    So just what process has been protecting our brave people until now?

    Just when did it stop working? & why?

    Answer those questions first & see if we need the new stuff..

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    This is all about keeping the human rights violations of our US allies secret, including the side-kick nations who do the torturing on their behalf. Remember Saddam was on "our" side for a long time and now we have friends like Uzbekistan where people get accused of being terrorists and can end up boiled alive just for opposing the government. Check it out...

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    100. Alan Robinson-Orr
    LOL I know, I was just being honest about the completely unethical approach our western governments have. I can't say they are corrupt or they'll delete my post. Based on past media bias and propaganda I can't believe the media in the UK do not have a political agenda.
    Dr. Bob's said it pretty clear I think, our reality is very much right-wing media contrived.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    We should scrap the present system & start over again. Corruption within the system of government is well & truely entrenched and has long been reflected by failures of something described by some as a "legal" system and a "justice" system. Government protects neither public or country, but hides behind both.
    . There should have been a Royal Commission years ago but some have far too much to hide.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    Do we really want to go back to the bad old days of so called English justice? When anyone without sufficient clout, was taken to court, evidence given in secret, summarily convicted & disappeared via the back stairs never to be seen again. This country is starting to sound like a medieval state, I know from friends in the US that similar laws have already been enacted. Time to be very worried

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.


    'Which trials have been conducted in secret? Surely we should know this information!!'

    It's a secret


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