Weighing in at just under eight minutes, last week’s Queen’s speech has been generally regarded as lightweight. But it contained a raft of new measures to transform the justice system and keep both the legal profession and civil libertarians very interested.
The impetus to keep US security agencies onside, and prevent a repeat of embarrasing disclosures about the torture of UK citizens, has led to the acceleration of plans to expand secret hearings into civil courts. A Justice and Security bill will be pushed through parliament this session.
The bill proposes using “closed material procedures” to prevent sensitive intelligence being revealed in civil courts. Ministers would be able to make initial decisions about material that should be withheld, and defendents or claimants and their representatives would be barred from the closed part of the hearings. In some cases the full judgments would not be published at the end of a civil trial.
Already roundly criticised as violating the most basic principles of the common law system – the right of every party to know the case against them, and the principle that there must be equality of arms between parties in court – the bill will face a tough battle, particularly in the Lords.
Announcing the National Crime Agency last June, Theresa May said: “It will be a crime-fighting organisation. It will tackle organised crime, defend our borders, fight fraud and cybercrime, and protect children and young people. Intelligence will be at the heart of what the NCA does…All other agencies will work to the NCA’s threat assessment and prioritisation, and it will be the NCA’s intelligence picture that will drive the response on the ground.” The new Crime and Courts bill would set up the NCA and also include proposals to reform judicial appointments and allow magistrates sitting on their own to deal speedily with low level cases. TV cameras would be allowed to broadcast limited footage from courts, initially in the Court of Appeal and then extended to the Crown Court. No victims, witnesses, offenders and jurors would be filmed.
The home secretary’s proposals to allow GCHQ to conduct real-time surveillance of a person’s communications and their web usage would give the intelligence services and police powers to insist that internet and phone companies hand over our data without our knowledge. She had hoped to introduce legislative changes after the Queen’s speech next month because of the importance of moving quickly.
However the proposals have proved most controversial within the coalition. They have also been widely criticised, not least by the House of Lords Constitution Committee. So much so that it has been removed from the fast tracked Crime and Courts bill into a stand alone bill. Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, announced that the contentious measures would only be published in draft form and would be subject to widespread consultation. This could delay the proposals for at least a year. But they have not gone away.
Finally there will be sweeping changes to the libel laws aimed at protecting freedom of speech and bringing an end to so-called ‘libel tourism’ from abroad. Launching the draft Defamation Bill in March 2011, justice secretary Ken Clarke said: “The right to speak freely and debate issues without fear of censure is a vital cornerstone of a democratic society. In recent years though, the increased threat of costly libel actions has begun to have a chilling effect on scientific and academic debate, and investigative journalism. However it is never acceptable to harm someone’s reputation without just cause, so the Bill will ensure defamation law continues to balance the needs of both sides and encourage a just outcome in libel cases.” Already scrutinised by parliament, the bill now appears as a fully developed proposal. It would abolish most costly jury trials, curb online defamation and make it more difficult for large corporations to sue newspapers.