Categorized | Civil Liberties

Secret trials

Secret trials

Back in the heady days of May 2010 a Tory and Liberal coalition agreement was produced at break-neck speed.

Section 10 of the agreement was about civil liberties. The preamble stated: “The parties agree to implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour Government and roll back state intrusion.” The agreement specifically promised the protection of historic freedoms through the defence of trial by jury.

The Protection of Freedoms Bill was a promising start. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: “This is a landmark Bill which will result in an unprecedented rolling back of the power of the state. The Protection of Freedoms Bill brings together a huge range of measures to restore the hard-won British liberties that have been lost in recent years.”

A far cry from this pledge came with Ken Clarke’s Justice and Security Green Paper, produced for consultation last October. The green paper proposes using “closed material procedures” to prevent sensitive intelligence being revealed in civil courts for the first time. Claimants would not be able to see the evidence against them and ministers would be able to make initial decisions about material that should be withheld. In some cases the full judgments would not be published at the end of a civil trial.

Appearing before Parliament’s joint committee on human rights (JCHR), Clarke was forced to defend his plans against accusations that they were a corruption of the British legal system which undermined the tradition of open justice. The committee has now produced a unanimously critical report. In their view the government’s claim for secrecy is far too broad and could include, for example, actions against the police and inquests concerning deaths in custody or soldiers killed by “friendly fire.” They are concerned about the potential impact of the proposals on public trust and confidence, not only in the government but in the courts. They regretted that the green paper overlooks the very considerable impact of its proposals on the freedom and ability of the media to report on matters of public interest and concern.

In a letter to the ‘Guardian’, the director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, maverick Conservative MP David Davis, Lady Kennedy QC, the former director of public prosecutions Lord Macdonald QC and others warned that the green paper “violates two of the most basic principles of our common law system: the right of every party to know the case against them, so that they can answer it; and the principle that there must be equality of arms between parties in court. It would permit secret hearings, and the giving of secret judgments by courts, accessible only to the government.”

There is a general consensus that concerns about spies and threats by the CIA to stop sharing information with UK security and intelligence agencies are what really lies behind the green paper. Ken Clarke has argued that only a tiny number of cases will be involved, and the Prime Minister has thrown his weight behind the proposals. But there are highly critical comments in the MoJ’s own appraisal of the measures, including the danger of resentment of the judicial process and unwillingness to participate in jury service because of intrusive vetting procedures.

It is an iron rule of government that when powers are left lying around someone will use or misuse them – witness the use of counter-terrorism legislation by local authorities in respect of such matters as dog fouling and whether or not children had the right to go to a particular school in a particular catchment area; and the use of section 44 stop-and-search powers, overwhelmingly against black and ethnic minority groups.

If this becomes law then the 800 years since Magna Carta could vanish at the stroke of a pen. In the wrong hands such chilling powers could prove calamitous to basic human freedoms.

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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