Secret hearings in civil courts to be introduced in weeks

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Secretive closed material procedure (CMP) hearings are to be extended into the country’s main civil courts following the House of Lords’ narrow rejection of an amendment to the controversial Justice and Security Bill.

Peers yesterday voted by 174 to 158 to reject a Labour amendment to allow the CMPs to be convened only if a judge rules it impossible to reach a fair verdict ‘by any other means’.

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Former justice secretary Kenneth Clarke, who championed the bill, has argued that closed procedures are necessary to allow sensitive intelligence to be heard in court without compromising national security.

The bill was prompted by the government having to pay compensation to alleged victims of torture because, for security reasons, evidence that might have disproved the allegation could not be heard in open court.

Special advocates cleared for security will represent claimants in CMPs, with only the other party and the judge present. Claimants and their lawyers will not be in court and will not be told the evidence or the charges against the claimants.

The bill will be sent to the Queen for royal assent before she opens a new session of parliament on 8 May.

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said: ‘Deviating from our centuries old tradition of open and fair justice should only be done in the most severe of circumstances, and only then with proper checks and balances in place to ensure it isn’t open to abuse or disproportionate.

‘That’s why we are bitterly disappointed the government has rejected the sensible amendments re-tabled by Labour which had the support of the Joint Committee of Human Rights, special advocates, experts, the legal profession, and MPs and peers of all parties and none.’

Earlier this year, Law Society president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff told the Gazette that CMPs undermine an essential principle of justice, which is that all parties are entitled to see and challenge all of the evidence relied upon before the court, and to combat that evidence by calling evidence of their own.

The Society also insisted that the government had failed to make a national security case for extending CMPs to ordinary civil litigation.

At the end of February, more than 700 lawyers signed an open letter calling on the government to drop its ‘dangerous and unnecessary’ plans to extend CMPs.

The letter, published in the Daily Mail, said that the proposals for secret courts are ‘contrary to the rule of law’ and ‘erode core principles of our civil justice system, including the right to a fair trial… and open justice’.

The letter added that the procedures would ‘fatally undermine’ the courtroom as a forum in which allegations of wrongdoing can be fairly tested and the government ‘transparently held to account’.

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