Clarke Rocked by Backlash over Secret Court Hearings

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Byline: James Chapman Political Editor

KENNETH Clarke yesterday admitted he was 'most unsettled' by criticism of plans to extend secret court hearings but conceded some reforms were necessary to 'satisfy the Americans'.

The Justice Secretary - facing a grilling from sceptical MPs and peers - accepted draft legislation would have to be amended to narrow the broad range of cases that ministers could order to be held behind closed doors.

But he insisted that in the most sensitive cases of national security, it was vital to change the law to reassure Washington that sensitive intelligence they shared with Britain would not be publicly disclosed.

In the case of Binyam Mohamed, a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner who sought to sue the Government for complicity in torture, ministers tried to conceal U.S. documents disclosing his alleged torture - but were overruled by the courts. Mr Clarke said: 'In an ideal world we would want every case to be conducted in a perfectly open way.

'[But] I would like to satisfy the Americans that if they give us material in confidence that we will not break that confidence.' The coalition has been accused of violating the most basic principles of justice by proposing to extend secret hearings to all civil proceedings and inquests.

The Daily Mail has revealed growing cross-party concern, shared even by the vast majority of special advocates, the security-cleared lawyers who would be expected to administer the new system.

Mr Clarke, appearing before the joint committee on human rights yesterday, said he was 'most unsettled' by the reaction of special advocates, admitting he was 'very startled by their strong reaction'.

The group, which includes 19 QCs, says the Government's plans 'represent a departure from the foundational principle of natural justice' and 'undermine the principle that public justice should be dispensed in public'.

The Justice Secretary suggested the Government now intended to narrow the circumstances in which ministers can decree cases might 'damage the public interest' if held in public, and strengthen judicial oversight. …