Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Nick Clegg in secret courts victory - but the debate is not over

If you doubt the Liberal Democrat influence in this Coalition Government, look no further than today's news about how the Government has moderated its plans on secret courts in three important ways at the insistence of  Nick Clegg.

The key concessions won by the Liberal Democrats are:
  • inquests have been removed from the plans 
  • judges rather than ministers to make call about whether secret evidence can be used
  • the definition of when they can apply is narrowed from public interest to national security
Now, I'd say most liberals and Liberals will still feel very queasy about plans to use the "Closed Material Procedures" at all. They would come into play during any civil case where evidence from the security services would be required and it was deemed that national security was at stake. This evidence would be only heard by the Judge and a Government appointed Special Advocate. The person who brought the claim against the Government would not be present, nor would they be allowed, ever, to find out what was discussed.

The whole point of our Court system is that both sides have the chance to test all of the evidence. You make your claim, for example "that big boy hit me and ran away". You would tell how that happened, showing pictures of your injuries, explaining the circumstances. The big boy (or his lawyers) then has the right to trash your story, say it was someone else and he was three miles away eating a McDonalds at the time or whatever and  his claims are then tested in turn.  You know the drill. We've all watched enough Rumpole, Crown Court or Silk. This procedure is used in a limited number of immigration and other cases and the proposal to extend it across all civil proceedings is worrying. It would make it so much harder for claimants to prove Government wrongdoing such as complicity in torture.

While I don't feel comfortable with the changes at all, I am glad that the Liberal Democrats have made significant changes to the original plans which limits the Government's scope for hiding what they have been up to. 

"Nick Clegg made clear that he would not let security concerns erode the principle of open justice. t Quote"He wants to encourage continued debate during the passage of this bill to ensure that the difficult balance between security and liberty is got right."
So, despite the concessions he has managed to get, Nick Clegg will still be looking for further changes during the passage of the Bill.

One thing I'm not so clear about - I've heard a few civil liberties this morning talking about how the old system of Public Interest Immunity certificates could continue to be used instead. Now that the test is national security rather than public interest in the proposed Bill, would that not mean that an amended Bill would be preferable?

There need to be more safeguards - particularly with regards to the Special Advocates who, according to Liberty, are less than happy with the way the system operates in the few cases where it applies now. However, we need to remember this hard won Liberal Democrat stamp of authority when we write up our "Horrors of a Tory Britain - what might have been" book ahead of the next election.


Anonymous said...

Isn't that an English thing, Caron?

Unknown said...

It is - I thought I'd put that in. One of those things that never make it from brain to keyboard.

I think the inquests thing could affect some Scots, though as I think that troops killed in action have their inquests through the English system wherever they come from in the UK.


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