We backed the Lib Dems over civil liberties – they must stand firm

by The Guardian  |  published on March 2, 2013

civil liberties

MPs are preparing to vote on the justice and security bill, which will introduce secret courts – called “close material procedures” – into ordinary civil law for the first time, when national security is said to be at stake (Lawyers savage Clarke’s plan, 28 February). CMPs will prevent claimants from knowing anything about their case, undermining 400 years of common law. The bill builds secrecy into the heart of the system which introduced open justice and the right to a fair trial to the world. We wrote to this paper during the 2010 general election campaign in support of the Liberal Democrats and, among other things, their promise for “wider and better defended civil liberties”. The letter criticised Labour for “presiding over a ruinous period for civil liberties”.

Yet the secret courts bill goes against everything the Liberal Democrats claimed to stand for on civil liberties. With its proposal that special advocates represent the interests of claimants without informing them of the proceedings, the bill threatens vital guarantees dating back to the Magna Carta. It is eloquent of the bill’s corrosive properties that the vast majority of special advocates, who understand the operation of CMPs better than anyone, told the committee that the bill is “inherently unfair” and that there is a “risk that closed material procedures will become the default option”.

Not only does the bill deprive claimants of the right to justice, it does so in the conceivably wide variety of circumstances, outlined by Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie and Anthony Peto QC in their Centre For Police Studies pamphlet. The bill favours the government and intelligence agencies over any individual who has a legitimate claim that should be heard in open court. Individuals like Binyam Mohammed and Abdul-Hakim Belhaj, who have alleged British involvement in their torture and rendition, would not receive the compensation they were owed, if this bill is passed; nor could the lies told by government in their cases be properly challenged in a secret court.

Open justice is a prerequisite for civil society. This bill will result in a catastrophic reduction in the public’s ability to hold government and its agencies to account. We urge Nick Clegg and his party to stay true to the party’s commitments in 2010 and to the spirit of the coalition agreement, which promised “to reverse the substantial erosion of liberties under Labour”.
Henry Porter, Anthony Barnett, Yasmin Alibhai Brown, Lisa Appignanesi, David Aukin, Julian Baggini, John le Carré, Brian Eno, David Marquand, George Monbiot, Philip Pullman, Philippe Sands, Richard Sennett, Raymond Tallis, Camilla Toulmin, Francis Wheen

• The flawed logic of the government’s proposals for closed material proceedings – secret courts – in civil cases is highlighted by their invocation of the public interest immunity procedure in the Litvinenko inquest (Report, 28 February). What is apparently good enough for inquests is deemed inappropriate for other cases where judicial discretion will be fettered under the latest proposed amendments to the justice and security bill. It’s worth recalling that the 7/7 inquests were conducted openly with no evident damage to national security.
Jeremy Beecham
Opposition justice spokesman, House of Lords

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