''Secret Inquests' return - keeping grieving families in the dark

This afternoon, the House of Commons will debate the Coroners and Justice Bill. It looks like the UK government will use the Bill to further increase the secrecy that seems to be pervading some aspects of UK justice.

Public access is one of the most important aspects of coroners’ inquests in this country, and if someone dies at the hands of the state, their relatives have a right to know what happened. But Justice Secretary Jack Straw has already made one attempt to grant the government the power to order some inquests to be held in secret. After vocal criticism and defeat in the Lords, he dropped the plans.

Now it looks like he may have found a way round this. Amnesty is concerned that, using an amendment inserted into the Bill today, the government will grant itself the power to suspend any coroner’s inquest and replace it with a ‘secret inquiry’ under the 2005 Inquiries Act.

Inquiries under the 2005 Act are not ‘public’ or independent in any meaningful way, as they are largely controlled by the government minister that orders them. Bereaved relatives, journalists and the public could be excluded from part of the inquiry’s hearings. The final report of any inquiry under the Inquiries Act would be published at the discretion of the government minister, and crucial findings could be omitted at the minister’s say-so, “in the public interest”.

If the government gets its way today, the public will lose a vital means of holding the authorities to account.

There’s already been quite enough secrecy introduced into judicial procedures in this country. We’ve seen an increasing use of ‘secret intelligence’, which the defendant cannot see or challenge, being used as the basis on which to punish people with Control Orders. Following a recent judgement by the Law Lords that this undermines the right to a fair trial, lawyers are now mounting a fightback.

But if the amendment is passed to the Coroners and Justice Bill today, the potential for a culture of secrecy to pervade the inquests system will be greatly increased. No doubt the government will argue that they need such powers to protect national security – but as Robert Verkaik writes in The Independent, “national security has a nasty habit of covering government embarrassments….ministers would find it difficult to resist using a power to hold an inquest in secret if they knew evidence was to emerge showing that they had acted negligently.”

We can only hope that MPs, and the Lords who will then look again at the Bill, resist this creeping secrecy and ensure that bereaved families and the wider public are not kept in the dark.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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