Secret inquest threat re-emerges

By Georgie Keate

Senior MPs and peers have pointed the finger at the government for attempting to pass legislation that will introduce secret court cases by the back door.

The accusations are aimed at the justice and security bill currently before parliament.

Although justice secretary Ken Clarke has assured critics the plans for secret inquests had been abandoned in May, a Lords committee discovered the decision could be made by a Cabinet minister without primary legislation.

It means that claims brought against the government on issues like torture, rendition or police shootings could be held in private away from the press and public.

"The secretary of state can hold these secret inquests if the government claims the issue is one of national security," Reprieve's Donald Campbell said.

"It looks like a response to cases brought to the government over torture and rendition, preventing embarrassments emerging in the future."

The government argues it needs secrecy in cases where terror suspects accuse UK security services of torture because of national security issues and the protection of agents' identity.

"This is a deeply disturbing development, reminiscent of super-injunctions in its excessive secrecy," said Reprieve’s executive director, Clare Algar.

"Yet instead of merely covering up footballers’ indiscretions, these courts could be used to sweep serious state human rights abuses – such as torture – under the carpet. 

"If this Bill passes, it will badly damage centuries of British legal tradition and make it far harder for the citizen to hold the state to account.”

In some cases where the courts already exist, defendants can have secret evidence brought against them which they did not know about or cannot challenge.

Campaigners have highlighted that ministers could veto the public from even knowing secret evidence is taking place in some court cases, preventing the press from challenging orders in the public interest.

There are also fears that secret inquests will lead to military friendly fire and police shootings cases from being heard publicly.