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The secret courts bill won’t enhance justice or make us more secure

28 January 2013

‘That Britain allowed itself to be dragged into complicity in extraordinary rendition – the kidnap and torture of individuals by the state – is a disgrace. That, nearly a decade later, the extent and limits of Britain’s involvement are still unknown is almost as shocking.’

So opens  a new report, Neither Just nor Secure, by Andrew Tyrie MP and Anthony Peto QC which shreds the Coalition’s Justice and Security Bill, a Bill which this week to go into Committee Stage in the House of Commons.

The Bill has already had a rough ride through Parliament. Deservedly so, for it is damaging legislation that will neither enhance justice nor make us more secure. For example, it proposed that the Government could introduce secret evidence in court, which would be heard in the absence of the other party, his or her lawyers, the press and the public. It was the Government’s original intention that this should happen on the application of a Government minister, if disclosure would damage ‘national security’ – no matter how trivial the damage.

Consider the following example of how this might work in practice:  a decorated NCO has his legs blown off in Afghanistan whilst using allegedly faulty MOD equipment. He sues the MOD for negligence. The MOD claims that the design and safety record of the equipment is national security sensitive. The MOD applies for a secret hearing of the case. The judge is obliged to grant it. The NCO and his legal team are unable to challenge effectively the MOD evidence and the judge is persuaded by the MOD case. As a result, the NCO never knows why he is denied compensation.

Just before Christmas, the House of Lords passed several amendments to the Bill which the Coalition now claims have rectified the faults in the original Bill. But Tyrie and Peto show that serious flaws remain. In particular, they stress that:

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–  Secret courts should be a last resort; a judge should have to exhaust the possible uses of the existing system of Public Interest Immunity (the current method for handling security-sensitive information in court) before considering the use of secret courts;

– The courts should still be allowed to hear ‘Norwich Pharmacal’ applications. These seek the disclosure of information held by UK authorities, in cases deemed to be ‘sensitive’. This was the principle used by Binyam Mohamed’s lawyers when he was contesting charges that could have resulted in the death penalty. Removing it will make it harder to uncover official wrongdoing in matters such as extraordinary rendition

– There should be a five year ‘sunset clause’ on the part of legislation that deals with secret courts;

– Proposals to reform the Intelligence and Security Committee should be strengthened, and its Chairman should be elected, subject to a Prime Ministerial safeguard, by secret ballot of Parliament, as recommended by the Wright Committee in 2009.

Yes, the intelligence services do a vital job. Yes, they are doing it in very difficult circumstances. Yes, they deserve our full support. But secret courts and ever-tighter restrictions on the disclosure of information in cases deemed ‘sensitive’ will damage Britain’s system of open justice and the reputation and effectiveness of the security agencies in the struggle against terrorism.

Tim Knox is Director of the Centre for Policy Studies.

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Show comments
  • Davidh

    You guys still don’t get it. There is no difference between NuLabour, NuTory and any coalition of Lib-Con / Lib-Lab. They are all playing the same neo-con game, buying off the voters and in the pockets of the special interests. You have an ex-Labour PM who was best buddies with George W and now tours the world with his very own road show. The current Tory PM pretends to be doing austerity but in fact is simply printing money to give to his bankster buddies. The media don’t seem bothered so long as they can get pics of naked royalty once in a while. It’s truely shocking. While people on here who should be smart enough to know beter just bicker about a non-existant left/right divide and what colour skin they prefer. Smokescreen stuff.

  • AnotherDaveB

    Has anything been done about the abuse of secrecy in the Family courts system?

    • Noa

      Sadly, in the justice system now views the family court system as the model and exemplar and wishes to extend its practices throughout.

  • The Laughing Cavalier

    One had hoped that with the demise of NuLabour this sort of authoritarianism would go with it.

    • telemaque

      The liberal credentials of the current labour regime however are not in doubt

      • Colonel Mustard

        Poppycock – or in your case rosecock.

        • telemaque

          Look carefully and enlarge if necessary

      • The Laughing Cavalier

        On the contrary, Mrs May is merely following in the footsteps of previous, NuLabour Home Secretaries, themselves guided by the neo-fascist Blair.

        • telemaque

          I think you need to know that we are swinging back from the mistakes of the 90’s and the swing will be complete when the charismatic one takes over

          • The Laughing Cavalier

            Oh Crikey! Does that mean the grinning charlatan, Blair, is making a comeback?

  • In2minds

    Secret courts: got anything on Chris Huhne? That trial looks to be a state
    secret too.

    • telemaque

      Con we have a post on this?

    • The Laughing Cavalier

      He goes on trial next week.

  • telemaque

    Ms May I fancy is much in favour of extraordinary rendition
    At least she is keen to export Muslims to torture regimes

    The home secretary, Theresa May, says the government is still determined to deport terror suspect Abu Qatada to Jordan, despite his release from prison on Tuesday after he won the latest legal battle. May has appealed against the court decision which led to Abu Qatada’s release on bail

    • John McClane

      She can export Muslims wherever she wants. & the quicker the better.

      • telemaque

        The point being she does not care

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