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Anger as MPs quietly water down safeguards on secret justice while focus was on gay marriage debate
James Chapman and Daniel Martin
01:38 GMT, 11 February 2013
01:38 GMT, 11 February 2013
Safeguards against Government plans for a major extension of ‘secret justice’ have been quietly swept away by ministers, campaigners warned last night.
They said that as MPs were focusing on last week’s gay marriage vote, the Ministry of Justice made key changes to legislation that will make it easier for ministers to hold potentially embarrassing cases behind closed doors.
Amendments made to the controversial Justice and Security Bill in response to civil liberties concerns expressed in the House of Lords were torn up in a Commons committee finalising the legislation. They included a measure which would have meant judges having to grant a secret hearing only if other alternatives – such as the existing system of public interest immunity – had been considered.
Focus: While the attention was on MPs voting on gay marriage in the House of Commons the Government revived work on the 'Secret Justice Bill'
The Government also succeeded in altering another safeguard which would have insisted that judges could allow a secret hearing only after balancing the Government’s demand for one against ancient legal principles of open justice.
Critics have warned that the proposals will seriously threaten Britain’s reputation for open and fair justice. The Daily Mail has led criticism of plans to allow so-called ‘closed material procedures’ (CMPs), in which cases are conducted entirely in private, in any civil hearing.
Defendants or claimants will not be allowed to be present, know or challenge the case against them and must be represented by a security-cleared special advocate, rather than their own lawyer.
Currently, such procedures are used in tiny numbers of immigration and deportation hearings, but the Government wants to extend them across the civil courts in cases deemed to involve national security.
Changes: Following the intervention of James Brokenshire (pictured) secret hearings could become default in some cases
The legislation has been drafted in close co-operation with the security services, who say countries may stop sharing intelligence with Britain if it risks being disclosed in open court.
Campaign groups Amnesty International, Justice, Liberty and Reprieve all say the threat of secret courts is graver than ever after ministers defied the Lords and reverted to the original version of the Justice and Security Bill.
They said the changes made to the legislation in the Lords – supported by Labour, Lib Dems, Crossbenchers and some Tories – improved the likelihood that secret courts would be used only as a genuine ‘last resort’.
Now, following the intervention of justice minister James Brokenshire, secret hearings could become the default in cases where the existing system for fairly handling sensitive material could instead have been used, they said.
Amnesty International spokesman Allan Hogarth said: ‘The Government has stubbornly refused to listen to widespread criticism of this dangerous and fundamentally unjust Bill.
‘If the Bill becomes law we will end up with victims of human rights violations being prevented from seeing secret evidence against them and even being prevented from talking to their own lawyers. It’s ludicrous and totally contrary to basic principles of open justice.’
Last night a Cabinet Office spokesman said: ‘These human rights groups need to study the Bill more carefully. It now ensures it is the judge and only the judge who will decide whether to hold a closed hearing.
‘He will have full discretion to refuse an application for a closed hearing – including quite specifically where it would not be in the interests of the fair and effective administration of justice. The Bill will increase, not decrease, scrutiny of our intelligence and security services.’