News In Focus
Concessions fail to satisfy Justice Bill critics
The UK Government's Justice and Security Bill was published yesterday, sparking renewed controversy over its plans for evidence in certain cases to be heard in closed proceedings.
An earlier proposal to allow sensitive inquests to be held in private has been dropped, but there is no change to the principal purpose of the bill – to allow evidence on behalf of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ to be presented to the court without being disclosed to individuals seeking damages or making complaints.
In a BBC interview, Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke admitted the plans were "less than perfect", but claimed the only alternative would be "silence". He said no evidence that was currently heard would be excluded, and the test for closed proceedings would be restricted to national security, dropping the previously proposed alternative of public interest, which it had been alleged would allow ministers to hide matters embarrassing to the Government.
In addition, a judge would have to decide whether the test was met.
However Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, claimed the bill would "end equal open civil justice, putting ministers and securocrats above the law".
Liberty said that unlike the present public interest immunity certificate procedure, which it would replace, a court would not be able to consider special measures to protect sensitive evidence, but would be required to grant an application for closed proceedings in any case where it considered that the Secretary of State would be required to make a disclosure damaging to the interests of national security. "Judges are made figleaves, robbed of their current public interest immunity discretion and so effectively required to comply with ministers’ desires for secrecy", the group claimed.
Liberal Democrats are claiming a success in forcing their Conservative coalition partners to water down aspects of the bill, but Lib Dem peer Lord Macdonald, a former Director of Public Prosecutions, said the concessions did not go far enough. People whose cases were decided against them on the basis of evidence they had not been allowed to see would still feel "bitterly aggrieved", he commented, and some Government wrongdoing in the area of national security "is going to be less likely to see the light of day".