Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Secret courts one step closer

“The Ministry of Justice is transforming the justice system”, says its website. But behind the jargon of transformation, transparency and modernisation, there is an actual demolition of justice taking place in Parliament.

This ministry was set up under Blair back in May 2007 as part of New Labour’s “modernisation” of Britain’s legal system. This project of undermining long-cherished rights is enthusiastically being continued by the present government

The Justice and Security Bill 2012-13, sponsored by Lord Wallace of Tankerness, has now lumbered through three readings in the House of Lords and is now due for its second reading in the House of Commons. You can even follow its progress towards royal assent on this website. Its stated aim is to:

“Provide for oversight of the Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service, the Government Communications Headquarters and other activities relating to intelligence or security matters; to make provision about closed material procedure in relation to certain civil proceedings; to prevent the making of certain court orders for the disclosure of sensitive information; and for
connected purposes.”

All openness and light, surely?

While the Bill’s progress is “open”, what is actually proposed is highly secretive and sinister. Its provisions give the secret intelligence services huge powers vis-a vis those they seek to try and punish. Ministers will have the power to obtain a “Closed Material Procedure” or CMP.

These procedures have previously only been used in relation to terrorism cases. They mean that, under the catch-all umbrella  of “national security” only the judge, the government’s lawyers and a “special advocate” appointed by the government will be allowed to know what is going on.

As the Guardian’s Nick Thornsby has pointed out, the CMP procedure is even more disturbing than a secret court. Its Kafkaesque provisions mean that “not only will the public not be able to hear the evidence before the court but the claimant – and his or her legal representatives – will also know nothing of what is presented.”

Even those of us not versed in the language of the legal profession can see that this spells serious dangers.  

The outcry from a raft of organisations and legal experts as the bill proceeded through parliament gives serious pause for thought. The BBC’s Dominic Casciani asks: “Are secret courts one step closer?”

Human Rights organisation Justice says the Bill’s provisions “could undermine public confidence in the administration of civil justice and damage the credibility of our judiciary”.

Liberty’s Isabella Sankey says: “The Government has not made the case for these illiberal proposals, which would change our justice system forever. These amendments may mean fewer miscarriages of justice but they do not undo the danger this Bill presents - minor nips and tucks won't make this chilling policy palatable.”

Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK has said: Even with the changes made by the Lords, the Justice and Security Bill would allow the government to rely on secret evidence across the court system in an unprecedented way that is incompatible with full respect for the right to a fair trial.

Human Rights lawyer and Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers international secretary Bill Bowring, notes that the Bill “threatens to take Britain back to the 17th century, through the use of secret evidence”.

Earlier this year, former The former Director of Public Prosecutions Lord Macdonald’s warned that “secret trials [are] an attack on the rule of law”.

Will the Bill get through? Although the LibDems voted down the Bill at their autumn conference, most experts now believe it will be enacted in 2013. So, along with other serious inroads, such as the criminalisation of squatting, it’s clear that our legal rights are being whittled down.

Welcome to authoritarian Britain, home to more CCTV cameras per head of population than anywhere else, where the draft Communications Data Bill instructs internet service providers to collect and store your emails (the state can already intercept them) and where the police regularly invoke anti-terror laws against peaceful protests.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

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