The body responsible for monitoring legal proposals to deal with the threat of terrorism says that government proposals to introduce greater secrecy into courts in cases which threaten national security can be made to work, despite widespread criticism from politicians and civil liberties groups.
The Justice and Security Bill which has just had its second reading in the House of Lords includes proposals to attempt to protect sensitive security information being aired in open court.
David Anderson QC says the measures included in the bill could be tolerable if, and only if, judges are given the final say on when courts should close their doors.
The Government says new laws are needed to protect sensitive information from being revealed in open court in cases brought against the security services.
The law is seen as necessary as in some cases sensitive information is disclosed in court, which threatens the national interest.
In the case of tortured terror suspect Binyam Mohamed, information passed to the UK by US secret services was revealed in court. The information was essential to Mr Mohamed receiving appropriate justice, but the disclosure prompted the US to threaten not to reveal information in future unless assurances could be made that information passed could not end up in court.
If the bill becomes law then specially vetted security lawyers, known as Special Advocates, will represent their clients in ‘Closed Material Proceedings’ (CMP). The Home Office argues that the provisions will allow sensitive material to be shown to a judge without the risk of it being revealed to a client or the public. CMPs are already used in some other cases.
Mr Anderson QC believes the arrangements, whilst far from ideal, are necessary.
“Closed material procedures are far from ideal but at least the evidence gets an airing,” he told Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights.
“These hearings can be tolerated, providing certain conditions are satisfied,” he added.
Those conditions referred to include that courts should only go into closed sessions as a last resort in cases which would otherwise not be heard. He also believes that the power to go to closed session should reside with judges and not the secretary of state, as is proposed.
“The judges’ hands are tied,” he said, adding, “the Secretary of State continues to pull the strings.”
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