From the Mail on Sunday;
“At least 15 court cases a year are expected to be held in secret under plans described as a chilling threat to British justice.
The Government had insisted that the behind-closed-doors hearings would be ‘rare’ events.
But the prediction that they will be more widespread than previously thought is laid bare in a Ministry of Justice document.
‘If they’re saying they’re going to need them in 15 cases a year, that doesn’t sound rare at all,’ Tory backbencher David Davis said yesterday. ‘Once they become available, it is inevitable their use will grow.’
The Mail on Sunday can reveal the Commons vote on the new powers has been brought forward a week to tomorrow.
It will prevent the Liberal Democrats from debating the Justice and Security Bill in advance at their spring conference next weekend. Last year Lib Dems voted overwhelmingly to scrap the plans.
Under the proposals, so-called ‘closed material procedures’ (CMPs) – in which large parts of cases would be conducted entirely in private – will be allowed in any civil hearing.
Defendants or claimants will not be allowed to be present, know or challenge the case against them. Such procedures are now used in tiny numbers of immigration and deportation hearings. But the Government wants to extend them across the civil courts to any case that, in a Minister’s view, requires the disclosure of ‘sensitive’ evidence.
As well as predicting the annual 15 secret trials, the Ministry of Justice ‘impact assessment’ document admits these ‘may lead to negative impacts on UK nationals, residents and businesses’ who fall foul of foreign governments – including those tortured or illegally imprisoned.
But it says there will be political benefits, including ‘a reduction in reputation and political costs to the UK’ caused by disclosing sensitive or politically embarrassing material in open court.
The plans have faced fierce criticism from ‘special advocates’ – the security-cleared barristers who will be the only lawyers allowed to attend CMPs. In a memo to Parliament, they say the hearings ‘are inherently unfair and contrary to the common law tradition’.
An amendment giving judges the power to balance Ministers’ demand for CMPs against the interests of open justice was added to the Bill by the Lords last year.
But it was removed by the Government at last month’s committee stage. Another amendment saying CMPs must be only a last resort was also voted down.
Labour intends to try to reintroduce the Lords’ safeguards, and about a dozen Tories will support them. It means the ultimate fate of the Bill now depends on whether Lib Dem backbenchers vote against it.
Joanna Shaw, a barrister and Lib Dem party activist, said: ‘If we were in opposition, we would be leading the campaign against the Bill.’
Mr Davis said: ‘The Lib Dems will have to ask themselves whether it’s OK to cover up 15 cases a year of torture, defective military equipment or other official wrongdoing.’”