Lawyers unite against Secret Courts

Posted by Bella Sankey on 28 February 2013

Opposition to Government plans for Secret Courts is widespread and mounting and today it has spilled over in a damning attack on the proposals by hundreds of Britain’s lawyers, including dozens of leading QCs.

More than 700 legal professionals have signed our petition against the Justice and Security Bill, which would allow dirty state secrets to be hidden from victims, journalists and the public. The signatories conclude that the legislation is “dangerous and unnecessary”, “contrary to the rule of law” and will “erode core principles of our civil justice system including the right to a fair trial, equality of arms and open justice”. They ask the Government to “abandon these dangerous and unnecessary plans” immediately.

Signatories who have added their names to the petition include former British Army lawyer Reverend Nicholas Mercer, Michael Fordham QC, Paul Bowen QC, former special advocate Dinah Rose QC and solicitor Louise Christian.

“The Justice and Security Bill has one principle aim and that is to cover up UK complicity in rendition and torture,” Reverend Mercer said. “The Bill is an affront to the open justice on which this country rightly prides itself and, above all, is an affront to human dignity. The fact that some of those individuals who are complicit in rendition and torture can not only assist in the drafting of the Bill but also vote to cover their tracks is a constitutional scandal - it is little wonder that the Bill has been heavily criticised by the UN Rapporteur on Torture and condemned by the vast majority of lawyers and human rights organisations in this country.”

Michael Fordham QC said: “By promoting the spread of secrecy, state authorities become self-immunised from proper public scrutiny, and in relation to the very types of actions which most need it. Parliament is unwisely provoking the untapped power of our unwritten constitution which it could come to regret. The last word will not be Parliament's, but that of judges asked to preside over Secret Courts. An unwise Parliament may be about to find that it has constitutional limits, when the rule of law fights back.”

“The extension of closed material procedures is not necessary for public protection,” added Paul Bowen QC. “The state is already free to withhold evidence from disclosure under Public Interest Immunity procedures. What is not fair, or just, is evidence being shown in secret to the judge who decides the case on the basis of that evidence. In those cases where disclosure of torture or other human rights abuses by the British Government or its agents is sought, the public interest surely requires that to be brought into the open."

Dinah Rose QC said: “Closed material procedures are alien to British justice and will distort civil trials beyond recognition. What may look and sound like a trial is in fact nothing of the sort. Judges will be asked to decide cases on the basis of ‘secret evidence’ that would not withstand legal challenge and hand down judgments in secret.”

And solicitor Louise Christian added: “These proposals would destroy the open and transparent basis of our justice system and allow governments to hide their transgressions from public scrutiny. In my experience of the Government wanting to withhold material in the proceedings brought by Guantanamo detainees, I can also say that Ken Clarke's claim that it will not mean any new information being kept secret, is untrue.”

Furthermore, a group of human rights organisations from across the world including Liberty, the American Civil Liberties Union and civil liberties groups from Hungary, Egypt, Canada, Ireland, South Africa and Argentina have also come together in London this week to express their concerns about the Bill.

Isn’t it time for the Coalition which one championed civil liberties to listen to such condemnation ofits proposals?

Ministers should stop trying to desperately spin a policy which would prevent bereaved families of neglected soldiers and police abuse victims from accessing open justice. No eleventh-hour facelift will salvage this ugly Bill.

The legislation will soon be considered by MPs, and could become law unless we act.

Your MP may be asked to vote on the Bill at Report Stage as early as next Monday, so write to them now – asking them to scrap Part 2 of the Bill, which contains the provisions for Secret Courts.