MPs and peers want 'secret inquest' proposals scrapped

A joint committee of MPs and peers has called on the Government to scrap measures which would allow some inquests to be held in secret.

Ministers had put forward “no proper justification” for the plans, the cross-party parliamentary joint committee on human rights said in a report published on Friday.

Earlier last week, justice secretary Jack Straw announced changes to the coroners and justice bill which would give high court judges the final say on whether inquests will be held without juries and in secret.

Straw said the changes meant the criteria for allowing a secret inquest had been “significantly tightened”.

The joint committee report was compiled before the amendments to the bill were tabled.

Committee chairman Andrew Dismore said: “While the government has attempted to modify the proposals, no proper justification has ever been put forward and the secret inquest plan should just be scrapped.

“Any investigation into the way a loved one has died – especially in circumstances involving the state – must remain transparent and accountable, and the bereaved must retain the right to be involved in the proceedings.”

Military families have raised concerns about the plans, which they fear could lead to bereaved relatives being unable to hear details of the death of their loved ones in war zones.

Civil liberties groups have accused Straw of using the proposed amendments as a “smokescreen” to help him push through the measure.

The bill will allow inquests to be held in secret when they involve matters of national security, the relationship between the UK and another country, the prevention or detection of crime, the protection of the safety of a witness or other person.

Straw said he hoped coroners would be able to give a broad outline of sensitive information to juries, and this would prevent the need for secret inquests in most cases.

He said: “There will be circumstances – I think they will be very few and far between – where the learned judge may decide that the only way in which the protected information can be the subject of a proper judgment by the court, but also protected itself, will be for the judge to sit alone without a jury.”

The amendments mean secret inquests can be held only if it is deemed “necessary” – the wider “public interest” justification has been dropped.

It will now also be for the high court judge taking the hearing, rather than the government, to decide what measures will be needed to keep sensitive material out of the public eye.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty, said: “What happened to all that rhetoric about re-balancing justice in favour of victims?

“This flawed policy forgets that the only point of an inquest is providing answers for bereaved families and the wider public. It is perfectly possible to protect sensitive material within an open jury system. Everything else is just politics.”

Amnesty International campaigns director Tim Hancock said: “Inquests should not be conducted in secret on the say so of the government.

“When someone has lost their life at the hands of the state, it’s essential – and required by international law – that an independent and impartial inquiry finds out how and why it happened.

“Coroners can already decide, independently, to exclude the public from part of an inquest on grounds of national security.

“Letting the government make this decision will lead to accusations of cover-ups and could deny both the public and the victim’s family their right to know what happened.”

Liberal Democrat justice spokesman David Howarth said: “The fundamental problem with the government’s proposals is that they allow inquests to be held without juries when a person has died at the hands of the state.

“This is simply wrong. The latest amendments go some way to allaying some objections, but not that most fundamental one.”

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