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".

'Offensive'

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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  • Comment number 139.

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

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 138.

    This is hilarious once again did not Ken Clarke appear on television saying this is a great idea blah blah blah !!! build more prisons before we are all doomed.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 137.

    Nothing to get too excited about, just another example of an out of touch government listening to their advisers (i.e. influential people trying to ensure their interests take priority) rather than the public then, when publicising what they intend to do, being surprised people strongly object then have to re-think.
    Govs, try representing the PEOPLE not vested interests - OK we can all dream

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 136.

    122.Adam
    "This is a worrying development. National security should always outweigh any concerns about civil liberties"
    ----

    One of the most concerning posts I've read in some considerable time.
    What threat? Terrorists (TM)? Give over.
    The only threat I perceive is from government. It appears to be on a crusade to remove civil liberties.
    Some are still lapping this swill up. Amazing!

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 135.

    Re: 66.Michelle Lenoir
    "British justice used to be one of the best or at least least bad."
    .
    Reputations are meaningless when fabricated or otherwise constructed by those with the intent to mislead and to manipulate the masses.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 134.

    132.ptfmwb

    "Furthermore is the possibility that they will be subject to public scrutiny at some point in the future, not more likely to improve the decisions that are taken."

    They're safe, they'll always be able to veto any FOI request, all in the interest of "National Security" of course.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 133.

    "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."
    ::::
    Fair! To whom?
    Spin us another one do!
    Lawyers, special or otherwise, are for those who don't know, 1st and foremost, Officers of The Court.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 132.

    Understand your point Mr Baker. However, are you not guilty of being equally naive in believing that those undoubtedly difficult decisions are always taken in good faith. Furthermore is the possibility that they will be subject to public scrutiny at some point in the future, not more likely to improve the decisions that are taken.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 131.

    66.Michelle Lenoir
    3 Hours ago
    British justice used to be one of the best or at least least bad.
    Ordinary people are the most snooped on; homes, computers searched. Harmless people jailed for stuff that would get laughed out of court in most of mainland Europe. Meanwhile guilty-as-hell rich and powerful do as they please.
    More transparency not less
    ---------------------
    couldnt agree more

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 130.

    U-turn, u-turn, u-turn. So what's left?
    Well, they've taken Benefits away from dying people and are about to do the same for the Blind. Put Tax Rates up for Pensioners but cut Tax Rates for Top Earners.
    Oh and of course, eased the rules governing their Expenses so now they can employ their families at Taxpayer's Expense.
    Impressive don't you think?

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 129.

    They got what they wanted, in other words. How anyone still falls for this tactic is beyond me. Suggest something extreme, then 'scale back' when it's shot down to what you originally intended to get passed. Works a treat.

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 128.

    When your own government uses fear and terror to make it's population docile and complacent towards its actions through imagined or real threats, when we start to lose our humanity in the name of "National Security" and other words used to instill panic in people, that's when we really should start worrying... which is probably around now.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 127.

    Don't know why so many people are championing open trials. Don't they know that these trials are to keep us safe from terrorism? Terrorism is a very real and terrifying threat (the clue is in the name!), which kills at least five people each year in this country. This is certainly worth sacrificing our freedoms for.

    TERRORism.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 126.

    National Security - An all-embracing umbrella, brought out whenever there is something embarrassing to State and/or Crown.
    .
    Useful to crooks, and to protect those working for them who they set up to be above the laws of this land and any other. Such people have no regards for our own laws, european laws or international laws. They are fully prepared to lie for each other to public & parliament.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 125.

    Wow, yet another obviously pre-planned political 'victory' for the lib dems. Clearly, the coalition think we are stupid.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 124.

    122.Adam

    "This is a worrying development. National security should always outweigh any concerns about civil liberties."

    Who defines "National Security" and in whose interest does it serve?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 123.

    While it is not very likely that I would be in front of a secret court (age and ennui) I think I would make the assumption that I was being held and tried illegally. I would see myself as a prisoner of war or a political prisoner and would behave appropriately. State fascism = individual AK47.

  • rate this
    -6

    Comment number 122.

    This is a worrying development. National security should always outweigh any concerns about civil liberties.

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 121.

    "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."
    :::
    And then sometimes you have them obstructing and perverting the course of justice and lying through their teeth to parliament and public.
    .
    We need proper representaion, we need a clean up, and a clear out.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 120.

    Can't you tell.

    The MPs are away on their jollies so the Downing Street Mafia have decided to get rid of their embarrassing u-turns while there is no one around to criticize them.

    Justice must be seen to be done so there should not be any "hiding away" of embarrassing cases.

    Cameron must be cursing the fact that the Leverton Inquiry is in public and not hidden away fro prying eyes and ears

 

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