Categorized | Civil Liberties

What has happened to habeas corpus?

What has happened to habeas corpus?

The last chance to soften the impact of the justice and security bill steam roller was lost in the Lords last week when Lib Dem peers obeyed the party whip and amendments were defeated by a narrow margin.

The proposals to expand secret courts suffered a series of hefty defeats in the House of Lords last November. But most of these amendments were thrown out or neutralised by a single vote in a subsequent Commons committee, with the help of the Democratic Unionist party’s Ian Paisley Junior. You wonder whether or not a quid pro quo was offered for that favour.

Speaking in last week’s Lords debate, former DPP Lord Macdonald (Lib Dem) said: “It is a matter of regret for me that my party, in the face of this striking illiberality at the heart of the legislation, associated itself with the removal in the other place of safeguards previously added to the Bill by your Lordships.”

The first amendment sought to add an amendment making the use of closed materials procedures – secret courts – a last resort. In proposing, opposition justice spokesman Lord Beecham said: “Openness is…replaced by effectiveness, a very different concept. Effective, one might ask, from whose perspective? Is it that of the party, presumably the Government? Openness now counts for nothing.” The House voted 158 for and 174 against.

The second amendment was introduced by Lord Macdonald, who proposed: “…that the court must…pay heed to the deep public interest in open justice, balancing it in coming to a conclusion on whether to move into secret session.” The amendment was not moved. The second division took place over an amendment suggested by Lord Marks (Lib Dem) which concerned the “review and renewal” of the operation of closed material procedures. The House voted 65 for and 141 against.The bill will be sent to the Queen for royal assent before she opens a new session of parliament on 8 May, and secret hearings in civil courts could be introduced in weeks.

In the debate Lord Beecham said: “The consequences of closed material procedures are that claimants are both blindfolded and effectively gagged, even in cases of habeas corpus.” Earlier last month Ken Clarke told the Commons that the bill would not impact on habeas corpus claims, though subsequently he rowed back from that statement. A spokesman for the Cabinet Office is reported as saying: “Habeas corpus cases involving national security evidence are extremely rare. Under the bill, a CMP could only be used in such a case where a judge has found that their use would be in the interests of the fair and effective administration of justice.”

The type of case that concerns campaigners is the recent habeas corpus claim of Yunus Rahmatullah, one of two men detained by UK forces in Iraq in 2004. He was subsequently handed over to the US and rendered to Bagram prison in Afghanistan, where he remains without charge or trial. The habeas corpus claim in the court of appeal was successful, forcing the UK government to ask the US to return Rahmatullah, but the appeal court’s ruling was later overturned after the US refused the demand. This case illustrates how, with secret courts, the government could claim “national security” reasons, making it harder for defence lawyers to win, as they would not be able to hear or challenge the government’s evidence.

Habeas corpus, first used in Britain in 1305, is invoked to demand that a prisoner be released from unlawful detention. It is regarded as one of the fundamental safeguards of liberty. As a child in elementary school I remember being taught that this was the main reason why Great Britain was better than any other country. Once sacrosanct, without this bedrock we are now all the poorer. It is an immutable rule of government that if you leave legislation lying around someone will use it, perhaps future administrations or judges who are not as high principled as the current lot claim to be.

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- who has written 8 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.


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