‘The government has created a very un-British secret justice system’ - Tim Hancock
Responding to a vote in the House of Lords this evening which saw the government’s controversial Justice and Security Bill approved by a majority of peers, Amnesty International UK Campaigns Director Tim Hancock said:
“This is a terrible day for British justice.
“After fierce lobbying by the government, Peers have failed to restore even minimal amendments previously included to this deeply damaging Bill.
“The cherished and vitally important principle that justice must be done and seen to be done has been dealt a serious blow this evening.
“Victims of human rights violations like rendition and torture will be prevented from seeing secret evidence about their own case. It’s an insult to them and a stain on our justice system.
“Lawyers in their hundreds have spoken out against these proposals and now they must try to represent their clients with one hand tied behind their backs.
“Having refused to listen to well-founded criticism, the government has created a very un-British secret justice system.”
During tonight’s debate a Lords amendment (6A) that would have meant that much-criticised “closed material procedures” would only be a last-resort measure - used when “the court considers that a fair determination of the proceedings is not possible by any other means” - was voted down by 174 votes to 158. Another amendment (6B) that would have meant that closed material procedures would only be used when judges had determined that “national security” considerations specifically outweighed the public interest in the fair and open administration of justice, was not even voted upon.
The Bill is set to become law within weeks, but Amnesty vowed to press for repeal of the law at the earliest opportunity.
Amnesty and numerous critics have pointed out that “closed material procedures” provisions in the Bill mean that individuals and their lawyers in civil cases could be prevented from seeing crucial documents on “national security” grounds when seeking to establish the extent of the involvement of UK officials in serious wrongdoing such as torture and enforced disappearance. Only a “special advocate” will be able to view the secret documents, and he or she will be forbidden from revealing anything of their contents. This secrecy could be maintained indefinitely, even if there is an overwhelming public interest in disclosure.
The Bill’s architect, Ken Clarke, the minister without portfolio, has claimed the legislation is necessary to allow certain civil cases to proceed because otherwise the government would be “forced” to settle cases as it would be unable to defend itself without revealing sensitive material or working methods. Amnesty has strongly rejected this claim, pointing out that there are already existing mechanisms which enable cases to proceed fairly while still ensuring sensitive material is protected, including by withholding names or through the use of confidentiality agreements.
Last October Amnesty published a 50-page report - Left In The Dark: the use of secret evidence in the United Kingdom (PDF) - highly critical of the unprecedented growth in the use of secret justice measures in the UK in the last decade. The expansion was a “radical departure” from the basic requirements of fairness in civil and criminal cases, said the organisation.