‘Secret courts’ debate continues in the Lords as Liberty mounts protest

“Kafkaesque” Government proposals to extend ‘secret courts’ have been debated in the House of Lords during a second reading.

Ken Clarke’s Justice and Security Bill proposes to extend the use of closed material procedures (CMP) to civil cases, in particular where information is considered sensitive to the state or the intelligence services.

Lord Wallace of Tankerness commended the second reading yesterday, saying the bill was aimed at finding a better balance between the “competing demands of liberty and security”.

He said the Government had “listened carefully to respondents” who had raised serious concerns about the Bill being “excessively broad” and that extending the use of closed material proceedings (CMPs) risked undermining the country’s history of open justice (14 March 2012)

Wallace L added that the Government had “extensively revised” the Bill to narrow its scope and strengthen safeguards.

However Lord Beecham, contesting the Bill, said there was a “troubling lack of evidence of any actual cases demonstrating the problem the government seeks to solve” and also criticised the “vagueness” of the evidence on which the Bill relies.

Beecham L said the Bill was a “major incursion into the right to a fair trial” and that it was “impacting on civil justice rather than preventing damage to national security” which he said could be achieved in other ways.

Beecham added that “Kafkaesque” descriptions of ‘secret trials’ may “strike a chord” with members of the house.

To coincide with the second reading, charity Liberty staged a protest outside the Supreme Court to highlight its claims that the “highly-flawed” Justice and Security Bill will “lock down open justice”.

The stunt used actors posing as bouncers outside court who prevented apparent members of the public and ‘claimants’ from proceeding while allowing ‘Government representatives’, holding files of secret evidence, to enter freely.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: “The sight of sinister bouncers barring victims, press and public from a court door may seem unthinkable, indefensible or both.

“But that is exactly what the Justice and Security Bill would achieve – undermining the reputation of Britain’s justice system and security establishment in the process. “The Bill replaces judicial discretion with executive control and destroys the age-old principle that everyone is equal under the law.”

Justice Secretary Clarke’s bill would allow the Government to present evidence behind closed doors without the other party or their lawyers having access to the evidence. Critics say the CMP plans are a reaction to embarrassing revelations in open court about the behaviour of UK agencies and US allies, such as detainee Binyam Mohammed’s treatment at Guantanamo Bay. (4 April 2012).

A House of Lords Constitution Committee report last week (15 June 2012)raised three principal areas of concern: that the Government is acting as sole gatekeeper; an absence of judicial balancing, and the secretary of state’s role in ruling on what evidence is made available to those litigating against the Government.

The meeting ended at 9.40pm last night in front of a sparsely-populated house.

The Bill was sent to a committee of the whole house where Lords undertake detailed line-by-line scrutiny of the proposals and can make amendments.