Fury over Moves to Hold More Court Cases in Secret

Article excerpt

Byline: Kirsty Walker Political Correspondent

RADICAL changes to the justice system will sweep away centuries of fair trial protections, senior lawyers and civil liberty campaigners warned yesterday.

Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke wants ministers to have the power to withhold evidence they deem 'sensitive' from civil court hearings.

But critics say the reforms will lead to a rise in the number of secret hearings and would deny defendants the right to challenge evidence used against them.

There would be more 'Closed Material Procedures,' where evidence is only disclosed to a judge, minister or 'Special Advocate' - a barrister authorised to work on national security cases.

Often, the minister exercising this new power would be a party to the case in a move which campaigners argue is an extraordinary conflict of interest.

The reforms, set out in a Green Paper, also give greater protection to government agencies in civil cases, meaning it would be easier for organisations like M15 and M16 to hide any wrongdoing.

Civil rights group Liberty has launched a 'secret justice' campaign to fight the plans, which it warns will have a damaging effect on investigative journalism.

It says the reforms could have led to evidence in high profile court cases such as the Paddington rail crash or the inquest into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell Tube station being withheld from lawyers and the public.

Liberty's director Shami Chakrabarti said: 'The worst scandals in any democracy are often uncovered by a combination of open courts and investigative journalism. …