Secret inquest plans resurface

Plans for secret inquests, which Justice Secretary Jack Straw had said were being dropped, are to be pushed through the House of Commons, it has emerged.

The latest scheme, contained in the Coroners and Justice Bill, would give the Lord Chancellor the absolute discretion to order a secret inquiry rather than a public inquest.

Relatives of the deceased could even be banned from such a hearing – according to the new proposals.

The Government argues that secrecy is needed in a small number of cases to protect national security and aid the fight against crime but critics say it could be a way for the authorities to avoid proper scrutiny of their behaviour and decisions.

The measure was defeated when it was considered in the House of Lords on October 21, but the Government said it would be reintroduced when the Bill returns to the Commons.

Civil rights groups and the National Union of Journalists have expressed concerns about the secrecy plans.

Human rights group Liberty said the powers would stop bereaved families from finding out the truth about how a loved one died.

Jeremy Dear, NUJ general secretary, said: “All inquests should continue to be open to the press and public.

“It is only by that level of public scrutiny that people can be assured there has been a proper investigation into the deaths of their loved-ones.

“This idea is an attack on the basic principle of open justice and open scrutiny of state institutions. The NUJ will be working with MPs and others to oppose this authoritarian measure.”

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said the scheme would be reintroduced in the Commons as it was important an inquiry into any death should be able to hear all the evidence, even if it meant that part of the hearing should be closed to the public.

She said: “It is also important that evidence is not allowed to harm police operations or the national interest…

“Liberty’s complaints are really about the terms of the Inquiries Act, which has been on the statute book since 2005.

“We have tabled some minor amendments in this Bill to give better effect to the policy, but those amendments do not lead to the lack of transparency and accountability that Liberty sets out.”

Critics say the secrecy power could be used in the cases of deaths such as that of Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot by police who mistook him for a suspected terrorist, or in cases in which soldiers might have died as a result of equipment shortages.

It is thought the new power might be used to ensure a secret inquiry in the case of 24-year-old Azelle Rodney, who was shot dead by police in 2005 as he sat in a car with two other men.

Rodney’s family has been told that an inquest into his death cannot go ahead because evidence involving sensitive information about police operations cannot be put to the jury.

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