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Secret justice on sensitive inquests behind closed doors dropped from the bill

Date: (29 May 2012)    |    

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Ministers have been forced to back down over the vast extension of the secret justice system which would be scrapped today.
There was a huge outcry by civil rights groups, MPs and lawyers, against the moves to hold sensitive inquests behind closed doors which the government has decided to drop all together. As far as civil cases are concerned the judges and not the politicians will be empowered to approve or refuse a request for a secret hearing.
The Daily Mail had led the criticism of so-called ‘closed material procedures’ where cases were to be conducted entirely in private.
Writing in the Mail today, Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke admitted the original plans were too broad. He said that the evidence which could be heard in the open courts will not be put in closed proceedings.
His retreat on inquests was welcomed by the Royal British Legion and campaigners for the rights of families in coroners’ courts.
But civil liberties groups said the concessions were not good enough as the ‘abhorrent’ Justice and Security Bill needed to be scrapped completely. They warned the legislation, to be published today, would still put ministers above the law, stopping the public learning about allegations of British complicity in rendition and torture.
Closed hearings were used in tiny numbers of immigration and deportation cases, but the Government had initially proposed employing them wherever ministers felt the public interest was threatened.
Defendants or claimants were not allowed to attend, know or challenge the case against them and had to be represented by a special advocate who was security-cleared, rather than their own lawyer. Critics said the proposals were a fundamental breach of the traditional principles of open justice, with MI5 and MI6 dictating the agenda.
Spy chiefs have been embarrassed by terror suspects making civil claims, which were settled out of court to stop sensitive intelligence material being discussed in public.
But even the elite group of lawyers involved in ‘secret justice’ hearings attacked the plans, casting doubt on whether the shakeup was needed to protect Britain’s intelligence relationship with the US.
The majority of security-cleared special advocates 57 out of 69 had insisted, those proposals to allow secret hearings across any civil court case or inquest hearing were ‘a departure from the foundational principle of natural justice’.
Critics also feared the new rules could be used to cover up potentially embarrassing incidents, such as police shootings.
The bill which was to be unveiled last week had to be stopped over the issue of whether to exclude inquests, which the Home Office and security services wanted retained.
The final version will introduce closed material procedures in ‘very limited’ circumstances in civil cases.



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