Judges reject use of secret evidence in civil trials

Judges reject use of secret evidence in civil trials

“The importance of civil trials being fair, the procedures of the court being simple, and the rules of court being clear are all of cardinal importance. It would, in our view, be wrong for judges to introduce into ordinary civil trials a procedure which…cuts across absolutely fundamental principles (the right to a fair trial and the right to know the reasons for the outcome), initially hard fought for and now well established for over three centuries”. So said the court of appeal in their concluding remarks when they dismissed an attempt by MI5 and MI6 to suppress evidence of complicity in torture in respect of British residents held at Guantanamo Bay.

Binyam Mohamed and five former prisoners are claiming damages against the Government for alleged complicity in torture and extraordinary rendition. The Government and security services wanted to use confidential information in their defence at the High Court, which in effect would have meant the case being held in secret. They filed an “Open Defence”, in which, while admitting that each of the claimants was detained and transferred, the defendants put in issue any mistreatment which the claimants allege, and, in any event, denied any liability in respect of any of the claimants’ detention or alleged mistreatment. “The issue on this appeal is whether Silber J was right to conclude, as the defendants contend, that it is open to a court in England and Wales, in the absence of statutory authority, to order a closed material procedure for part (or, conceivably, even the whole) of the trial of a civil claim for damages in tort and breach of statutory duty”.

The men’s lawyers argued that use of the “closed material” procedure, normally confined to criminal cases, would undermine the basic concepts of a fair and open trial. The court of appeal agreed with them, stating: “We have concluded that we should allow this appeal, and that we should say firmly and unambiguously that it is not open to a court in England and Wales, in the absence of statutory power to do so or (arguably) agreement between the parties that the action should proceed on such a basis, to order a closed material procedure in relation to the trial of an ordinary civil claim, such as a claim for damages for tort or breach of statutory duty”. They gave as their primary reason for their conclusion that, by acceding to the defendants’ argument, the court, while purportedly developing the common law, would in fact be undermining one of its most fundamental principles. Under common law a party to litigation should know the reasons why he won or lost, and trials should be conducted, and judgments should be given, in public. “In our view, the principle that a litigant should be able to see and hear all the evidence which is seen and heard by a court determining his case is so fundamental, so embedded in the common law, that, in the absence of parliamentary authority, no judge should override it, at any rate in relation to an ordinary civil claim”.

The judges gave the attorney general, MI5 and MI6 28 days to appeal to the supreme court. It will fall to the new government to decide whether or not to appeal, but, according to the ‘Guardian’, the former detainees are now likely to be offered compensation of millions of pounds in out-of-court settlements, that being preferable to having embarrassing evidence of the security and intelligence agencies’ complicity in abuse being exposed.

The full text of the judgement by the Master of the Rolls, Lord Justice Maurice Kay and Lord Justice Sullivan in Neutral Citation Number: [2010] EWCA Civ 482 can be found at:

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2010/482.html

This post was written by:

- who has written 462 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.

Mike Gribbin is a retired Civil Servant with wide experience, including the drafting and implementation of Parliamentary legislation and regulations. He is the editor of “Criminal Offences Handbook”, a uniquely comprehensive guide to more than one thousand ways to fall foul of UK criminal law. He is Editor of the Upper Case Legal Journal and has been writing blog posts for the past eight years.

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