Categorized | Criminal Justice

Secret Courts

Secret Courts

Government proposals to expand secret courts suffered a series of hefty defeats in the House of Lords last Wednesday, significantly narrowing the scope of the justice and security bill. This can have come as no surprise to the government. The opposition of human rights groups and many prominent lawyers, and parliament’s joint committee on human rights (JCHR), to secret trials and withholding evidence has been mounting.

On the eve of the debate, Ken Clarke, charged with guiding the bill through parliament, received a letter from Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, and Michael Todd QC, chairman of the Bar Council. They deplored the departure from an essential principle of natural justice “that all parties are entitled to see and challenge all of the evidence relied upon before the court, and to combat that evidence by calling evidence of their own”, adding: “Secret trials and non-disclosure of evidence are potential characteristics of repressive regimes and undemocratic societies.”

A last-minute concession by the government on the previous Friday withdrew powers in the bill that would have allowed secret hearings to be extended into other courts solely by ministerial decree. Clarke said that this would “set to rest fears raised by the JCHR that the order-making power could have been misused, and put beyond any doubt whatsoever the fact that inquests are beyond the scope of the bill.”

The Lords debate was opened by Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, who posed the basic question: “Can a trial in which the accused does not have an untrammelled ability to test fully the evidence against him, interacting as appropriate with the best legal advice, ever be fair?” Lord Dubs (Labour) later moved Amendment 45, which proposed removing closed material procedures (CMPs) from the bill altogether, but this amendment was lost by the substantial margin of 164 to 25.

The government defeats came at the hands of a series of amendments proposed by the leading QC Lord Pannick (Crossbench). He moved Amendment 33, saying: “Under the Bill, a CMP may be ordered only on the application of the state. Amendment 33 would provide that the judge is able to order a CMP also on the application of another party to the proceedings or on the court’s own motion.” This was agreed by 273 to 173.

Discussion then went on to Amendment 35, also moved by Lord Pannick concerning whether CMPs should be at the discretion of a judge. This amendment went to a vote with 264 voting for and 159 against. Amendment 36 inserted the words “the degree of harm to the interests of national security if the material is disclosed would be likely to outweigh the public interest in the fair and open administration of justice” and was agreed by 247 to160. These successful amendments removed any secretary of state’s exclusive right to apply for a secret hearing and gave judges more discretion to decide whether hearings should be held behind closed doors.

Commenting on the defeats, the shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, said: “These humiliating defeats for the government mean proper checks and balances are now being put in place, with the worst excesses rightfully watered down.” And splits in the coalition appeared with massive Lib Dem rebellions in the early votes as the party’s peers overwhelmingly backed Lord Pannick’s set of amendments. Liberal Democrat leader and deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, has indicated he believes the bill requires improvement.

It was therefore ironic that the minister charged with guiding the bill through the Lords was Lib Dem peer Lord Wallace of Tankerness. Forced on to the back foot at one stage, he said: “My Lords, it may be for the convenience of the House if I indicate that, while the Government do not accept Amendments 37, 38 and 40, we do not propose to resist them at this time. There will obviously be an opportunity to reflect on them.”

The third reading of the bill, unusually introduced into the Lords first, is yet to be scheduled.

This post was written by:

- who has written 460 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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