Secret courts threat graver than ever after government overturns Lords amendments to Justice & Security Bill
Amnesty International, JUSTICE, Liberty and Reprieve have warned that the threat of secret courts is graver than ever after ministers defied the House of Lords and reverted back to the original version of the highly damaging Justice and Security Bill.
Yesterday - as Westminster and the media concentrated on same-sex marriage - the House of Commons Committee responsible for scrutiny of the Bill passed new government amendments which reverse changes to the Bill made by the Lords in November.
In November the government suffered several large cross-party defeats on the legislation in the House of Lords, as Peers introduced a series of amendments. Those changes - supported by Labour, Liberal Democrats, Crossbenchers and some Conservatives - improved the likelihood that secret courts would be used only as a genuine “last resort”.
Now, following yesterday’s intervention by government ministers, the “last resort” amendment has been overturned, meaning that secret hearings could become the default in cases where the existing system for fairly handling sensitive material could instead have been used. Campaigners are warning that if ministers get their way then secret material - never disclosed to the claimant, let alone the public or the press - would routinely be used to defend serious allegations. The only people allowed to be present would be the judge, the government itself and a government-appointed “Special Advocate”.
Amnesty International UK Head of Policy and Government Affairs Allan Hogarth said:
“The government has stubbornly refused to listen to widespread criticism of this dangerous and fundamentally unjust Bill.
“If the Bill becomes law we will end up with victims of human rights violations being prevented from seeing secret evidence against them and even being prevented from talking to their own lawyers. It’s ludicrous and totally contrary to basic principles of open justice.”
The Justice and Security Bill now moves to Report Stage in the House of Commons - where there is likely to be a showdown vote to either entirely scrap Part 2 of the Bill (which contains the provisions for secret courts), or to reintroduce the House of Lords’ original amendments. Labour has reserved the option to vote against the legislation if the government fails to make the case for it, while minority parties, excluding the DUP, are against Part 2 and a growing number of Conservative and Liberal Democrat backbenchers also oppose the Bill.
Meanwhile opposition elsewhere continues to mount. The Scottish Government does not want the secret courts provisions to apply to devolved areas in Scotland, and the Scottish Liberal Democrats will debate a motion against the Bill next month. And Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie and Anthony Peto QC have published a report (Neither Just nor Secure) which rejects the legislation.