UK government wavers on “secret” trials

Ken Clarke, the British Justice Secretary, has been forced to defend government plans to extend the scope of secret trials. The proposals would allow ministers, rather than judges, to order the hearing of sensitive civil cases to be conducted in secret. In a radio interview this morning, Clarke described the last government as “far too authoritarian” and said his views on civil liberties issues were in line with his Liberal Democrat coalition partners. Yet, Clarke’s interview was forced after the Joint Committee on Human Rights described his department’s plans as a “radical departure from long standing traditions of justice” and in light of the security situation the plans “simply aren’t justified”.

The Joint Committee heard damning evidence on the government’s proposals contained within the Justice Green Paper, including concerns on the impact on free expression and open justice from Index on Censorship.

After the committee’s findings, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg made clear his reservations — stating no inquests should be held in secret. Rumours abound that the Ministry of Justice will be forced to back down due to the report and the intervention of the Deputy Prime Minister. Civil libertarians in the Conservative party are also increasingly disgruntled by illiberal policies such as the leaked “data snooping” proposals and attempts to curtail the Freedom of Information Act.

The Joint Committee’s report makes interesting reading. Echoing Index’s submission and the evidence of other human rights organisations, the Committee argued that the broadness of what could be made secret was not justifiable:

The emphasis in the Secretary of State’s Foreword to the Green Paper is almost exclusively on the security and intelligence agencies and national security… The proposals in the Green Paper, however, are not confined to contexts concerning intelligence information or other material concerning national security. Rather, they relate to the disclosure of any “sensitive material” the disclosure of which may harm the “public interest”.

Indeed, it found no justification for the changes the government pushed for in inquests, stating:

We do not consider that the Government has produced any evidence to demonstrate the need to introduce fundamental changes to the way in which inquests are conducted

Legal expert Joshua Rozenberg believes the Green Paper was an attempt by the UK government to rebuild trust between their security services and their US counterparts since the Binyam Mohamed case. Guantanamo detainee Mohamed successfully sued the UK government for his mistreatment whilst held by the US which led to the disclosure of intelligence implicating that government in torture.

Now that there is serious public disquiet from within the government will Clark re-assess these misconstrued proposals — or is international pressure from partners enough to undermine the UK’s “traditions of justice”?