The Government has been criticised over plans to introduce ‘secret courts’in the UK.
Justice Secretary Ken Clarke yesterday unveiled a justice and security green paper that included several proposals which critics claim represent a ‘slide into a worryingly wide use of secret measures in our justice system”.
Among them were plans for grieving families to be security-vetted before being allowed into inquests hearing sensitive information about the deaths of their loved ones.
The plans could also see terror compensation cases held behind closed doors, with the aim improving the way information from the security services, including MI5 and MI6, is handled while still protecting national security.
The moves could also involve asking jurors to sign confidentiality agreements, but the Government has admitted that this alone would not be enough to ensure sensitive information was protected.
The Ministry of Justice consultation suggests the “security vetting of family members in order to enable them to see and hear sensitive material” and “better understand the circumstances of the death of a relative” where sensitive information is involved.
But the justice and security green paper also warned that this would be an “intrusive process” which “could be extremely distressing for a family grieving the loss of a relative”.
“Additionally, some means would have to be provided to exclude family members in the event that they did not wish to be vetted or were not cleared to see the material,” it said.
Other options include extending plans to hear terror compensation cases behind closed doors.
Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke said the number of such cases was “steadily increasing”, adding it was “becoming fashionable almost” to start challenging cases involving the security services in the courts.
Clarke said justice was not being served under the current system and national security was being put at risk.
“The consequence is a Catch-22 situation in which the courts may be prevented from reaching any fully informed judgment on the case because it cannot hear all the evidence,” he said.
“At the moment, we are not always getting at the truth because some evidence is too sensitive to disclose in open court.
“The current system is failing to serve the public interest. Government cannot defend its actions. The security and intelligence agencies are unable to defend their reputations and get on with the vital job of keeping us safe.”
Under the plans an impartial and independent judge will have the power to review the Government’s statement that national security would be damaged if evidence were openly disclosed, helping to “ensure that closed procedures are only used where absolutely necessary”, he said.
So-called special advocates in civil courts, such as those already used in cases involving the security services heard by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, would be able to examine secret documents in closed hearings.
But Isabella Sankey, director of policy for the civil rights group Liberty, said: “The security services seem to think that having to compensate former Guantanamo detainees for failing in their duty to them justifies closing down open civil courts into the future.
“These payouts should encourage the avoidance of complicity in torture, not blatant attempts to halt centuries of British justice.
“Further inroads like this will make it even easier for the system to be abused – to prevent embarrassment, not protect national security.”
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, said: “The risk of our courts disclosing foreign intelligence material, which allies had presumed to be shared in confidence, is extremely concerning.
“Additional protection for intelligence material is urgently needed.”
But Kate Allen, director of human rights group Amnesty International UK, said the proposals “represent a slide into a worryingly wide use of secret measures in our justice system”.
“Where there are credible allegations of the UK security services being involved in serious human rights violations, the need for truth and open justice is paramount. Rather than seeking to expand the role of secretive processes that obstruct people from accessing the truth, the Government should be safeguarding the principle that people deserve to know the truth wherever possible.”