6 March 2012
Good government is constructed on the pillars of respect for the rule of law, support for the democratic process and a bureaucracy imbued with the spirit of service, all bonded with transparency and integrity. Can good government survive if protecting the state requires the undermining of these elements?
Holding detainees at Guantanamo Bay can be seen as an erosion of the United States commitment to good government. The British Government has its own problems dealing with terrorist suspects. It is now promoting legislation that will authorise private civil courts – described as closed material proceedings. The intention is avoid embarrassing claims against MI5 and MI6 brought by citizens jailed and allegedly tortured by the United States with British knowledge.
Submissions about the proposals reflect community concerns. The parliamentary joint committee on human rights is to consider the matter today. It will deal with allegations that proposed powers are much more severe than existing public interest immunity certificates available to the security agencies. The legislation will exclude the right of claimants to access the government’s evidence, to test the veracity of witnesses, and ultimately even to be given the reasons for the court’s decision. Opponents argue that the UK is “sleepwalking into a system of secret courts… (that will) erode centuries-old traditions of open justice…”
The Minister of Justice is more optimistic. He has said that the proposed changes reflect reality and mean that …”people will share intelligence with (the UK) knowing that it will be used properly, will not be misused and will not be disclosed in areas where it would do damage.” He doesn’t accept that there will be a public reaction and a refusal to participate in juries associated with closed proceedings.
Many submissions are accessible on the Cabinet Office website. Most include reservations. The view of the Police Federation, concerned about risks to the interests of justice, is to use the closed proceedings only in “exceptional cases”.
Critics include a former director of prosecutions who claims that the proposals are an attack on British justice and the fundamental principle that you are entitled to know and challenge the case being made against you. However his reputation for openness and integrity is being challenged. When in office he decided not to broaden the News of the World phone hacking investigation despite being aware of evidence that detected offending was much wider than publicly disclosed. Since mid 2011 he has been retained as an adviser to News of the World. His allegation is that the proposals …. “threaten to put the government above the law while leaving ordinary citizens, and the press, shut out of their own justice system. After a decade in which we have seen our politicians and officials caught up in the woeful abuses of the War on Terror, the last thing the Government should be seeking is to sweep all of this under the carpet. However, that is exactly what their disastrous secret justice proposals are likely to do.
“David Cameron came to power saying ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’. We should not sacrifice Britain’s open and transparent justice system simply to protect politicians and their officials from embarrassment”.