Ministers were yesterday (5 February) successful in pushing changes through a Parliamentary committee which would further strengthen their ability to make use of secret courts to defend themselves.
The Justice and Security Bill, currently being considered by a Commons committee, had received minor modifications in the Lords which would have slightly restricted the powers of ministers to push civil court proceedings into secret hearings by claiming ‘national security’ was involved.
However, those modifications have now been rolled back by a Government amendment which removes the ability of the judge to balance the need for justice with the need for security.
Ministers also successfully opposed an attempt to prevent secret courts being used in cases where someone’s liberty is at stake. This would mean that in future, people challenging their wrongful imprisonment could remain incarcerated without knowing why.
The Justice and Security Bill would allow ministers to use secret courts – known as Closed Material Procedures (CMPs) – in any case where they claim ‘national security’ is involved.
In a CMP, the side opposing the Government would be excluded from the court room – along with the press and the public – and would never be able to hear, let alone challenge, the evidence used against them. This would not only hand a huge advantage to the Government’s lawyers, but also provide a mechanism by which embarrassing facts could be prevented from becoming public. As judges hold that national security decisions are a matter for the executive, they would have little option but to accept the Government’s position and allow a CMP to take place.
Clare Algar, the Executive Director of the legal charity Reprieve said: “This demonstrates that ministers are simply not prepared to listen to reason on the secret courts bill. They have undermined even the minor changes made by the House of Lords – all the while claiming that they are doing the opposite. The problem is that secret courts are simply not compatible with our centuries-old traditions of equal justice. The only way forward is for MPs to reject proposals for secret courts altogether.”