Government sees off amendments on secret civil hearings

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Government plans for secret courts were approved by a majority in the House of Commons on Monday evening, despite opposition from Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs and amendments tabled by the Labour frontbench.

Labour and coalition rebels who had proposed putting in place further conditions to the Justice and Security Bill before closed material procedures (CMPs) could be used in civil courts were defeated by a government majority of 73.

A second proposal requiring judges to balance the interests of national security against public interest in the fair and open administration of justice was also defeated, this time by 71 votes.

The vote represented a defeat for civil liberties campaigners, who have strived to win concessions from the government since the Justice and Security green paper was published in October 2011.

Former justice secretary and now minister without portfolio Kenneth Clarke, said that the bill will introduce much-needed legislation to strengthen oversight of the security and intelligence agencies.

It will allow civil courts, through the limited use of closed material proceedings, to hear a greater range of evidence in national security cases without endangering agents in the field or the sources of intelligence.

Yesterday a former lord chief justice, Lord Woolf of Barnes, welcomed a government concession to place the operation of CMPs under the control of judges rather than ministers.

However, the concession did not persuade other critics.

Solicitor Kartik Mittal of City firm Zaiwalla & Co said: ‘The importance of the open justice principle has been emphasised by the courts in numerous cases. Recently Lord Dyson, in the Al Rawi case, stated that the open justice principle is not a mere procedural rule but a fundamental common law principle.

‘This latest development may undermine public confidence in the justice system and poses a threat to the rule of law. It is not only important to ensure that justice is done but also to ensure that the public sees that justice is done.’

Barrister Adam Clemens of 7 Bedford Row said: ‘I cannot remember a bill in recent history which has been subject to so many amendments, and attracted such adverse media opposition and comment.

‘Even assuming the bill passes into law, two problems present. First, it is almost inevitable that it will be subject to a human rights compatibility challenge. Second, how will the provisions be meshed with the Civil Procedure Rules, particularly in relation to disclosure?’

The bill will continue to report stage on 7 March.

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