(LAST UPDATED: 11 December 2012)
The Government’s Justice and Security Bill aims to deal with how the Government balances sensitive issues of national security with an open and fair civil justice system. It is therefore right Labour scrutinise closely the contents of the Bill as both national security and the integrity of our justice system are both very important issues.
Open and transparency of justice is a hugely important principle and deviating from it should only be done in the most serious of circumstances. The Bill proposes to introduce closed material procedures (CMPs) – sometimes known as ‘secret courts’ – into our civil justice system. The Government argue that CMPs would allow evidence which is deemed too sensitive to be dealt with in an open court to be heard in a closed session. Critics argue that it undermines the fundamental principle of open and fair justice.
Like the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism and the Joint Committee of Human Rights (JCHR), I was of the view that there may be rare examples where it is preferable for a CMP to be used, because there may be no other way a case can be heard. However, I believe the legislation is too widely drawn and there are too few safeguards. In particular it is essential that a CMP is only used as a last resort, and at the discretion of a judge, not ministers.
Labour sought amendments to the Bill in the House of Lords, using the recommendations made by the JCHR as a basis to put in place more checks and balances. We have been successful in persuading the House of Lords to amend the Bill so that judges will decide on the use of CMPs, and that CMP is the option of last resort.
The legislation has many more stages before it becomes an Act of Parliament and it is uncertain how the Government will respond to the changes the House of Lords have made to the Bill. The Bill still has to pass through various stages in the House of Commons. But I will maintain my position and guard against any attempts to undo the improvements we have secured.