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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  • Comment number 179.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 178.


    It's "Panopticon" and yes it is, why is that relevant as to whether or not he designed a style of prison?

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    29th May 2012 - 22:52

    As Jeremy Bentham once said, "Secrecy, being an instrument of conspiracy, ought never to be the system of a regular government."

    - Would this be the same Jermey Bentham who designed the Panoptican?

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    "HMG's first duty is to govern - that's why it is called a "government"."

    Governing them is only possible if some whacko hasnt been allowed to nuke them. The first duty of government is defence of the people (though the way the MOD is being cut they appear to have forgotten).

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.


    "Good to see paranoia alive and well as the UKs only growth industry"

    It's not paranoia, remember the mission to kill Bin Laden? You think that was a one off? Every country that can probably sends Balck Ops. teams to assassinate people three times a day.

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    Good to see paranoia alive and well as the UKs only growth industry.

    If everything known or happening should be visible to all, please feel free to leave your front door open at all times. Nothing could possibly go wrong!

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.


    It was more of a general reference to everything that goes on behind closed doors that we never hear about.

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    We would probably throw up if we knew what really goes on behind closed doors.-----------
    In most trials what the jury hear is only a proportion of the truth anyway-the defence will argue out confessions and comments made if for instance the person refuses to sign the notebook and the officer does not get it counter-signed by his/her superior.

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    170 davecox
    "names and addresses" even when the state has names & addresses of it's own senior staff in very sensitive areas of security they allow enough time (7 days) for the security agent to be removed from the country,interrogated,secrets and agents compromised before they even notice that said agent is even missing!
    If this is not the case then they have lied under oath to the coroner!

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    listen to all the civil rights wingers, they would be the first to complain if their security was threatened. Our agents have to have protected, or would you prefer if we gave their names and addresses to the terrorists ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    To be accused and tried for a crime while not being told what the evidence against you is and how it was gathered is fundamentally wrong and evil. If that is what the 'legal system' becomes why bother with trials at all. Shot while escaping from an unspecified jail by persons unidentified for reasons of national security would be more honest and a lot cheaper.

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    I sympathise with the predicament of the security services but surrendering fundamental principles of justice is not acceptable. An accused should always be able to hear the evidence against him so that he can refute it.
    This will suffer 'creep' where secret evidence is used in more and more cases. The result will be injustice for many, not just terrorists, and regular government cover ups.

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    159 Geoff
    Interesting reflecting back on internal battles we've had in history ,one being the IRA with the death rate and carnage to person/property that this inflicted and yet we did'nt see fit to implement this legislation then!?

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    As Jeremy Bentham once said, "Secrecy, being an instrument of conspiracy, ought never to be the system of a regular government."

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    "HMG's first duty is to protect UK citizens"
    HMG's first duty is to govern - that's why it is called a "government".

    Obvious to everyone, surely?

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    161. Britainsnotpleased Are you trying to say that our dearly beloved politicians are motivated by money as well as votes. Wow! Who'd have thought it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    160. electriic_ink
    As u say HMG's first duty is to protect UK citizens. I do not regard these traitors as UK citizens. Some are actively fighting 4 the enemy (see Guardian report on 200+ fighting 4 Taliban) others aid them by fund raising etc. & I am not prepared to see people maimed & killed as a price 4 protecting the liberty of these Islamo-fascists. Put them in a separate category GITMO style

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    Has anyone mentioned that some of our government agencies are quite happy to prosecute even when their case -- on the balance of evidence -- cannot win in a court of law?

    It's thanks to disclosure rules that bodies that operate in a 3rd rate manner do not cause more miscarriages of justice.

    Think I am joking: look into the Tchenguiz v SFO issue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    160.electriic_ink -The British government is there first and foremost to protect the interests of the citizens of this country

    Do you really believe the rubbish that you wrote . All the ConDems as are Labour is how can we con the most money out of our citizens and how can we make money so that they get a directorship in corporate britain. You have swallowed the lie Dulce et Decorum Est

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    159. Geoff.
    The British government is there first and foremost to protect the interests of the citizens of this country. As it stands, terrorism kills a negligible number of people in this country every year. Even if, God forbid, we had another 7/7 in the Olympics, the annual death rate is still TINY. As you say, MI5 are doing a wonderful job and, I have every confidence they will continue to doso


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