Anger over widespread use of gagging orders: Government criticised as details emerge of ministerial device regularly employed to prevent disclosure of crucial documents in court cases

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FIFTEEN gagging orders preventing the disclosure of government documents in court cases have been signed by ministers in the past six months.

The figure, disclosed by John Major after almost two weeks of inquiries, provoked calls last night for tighter control over the use of Public Interest Immunity (PII) certificates, similar to those unsuccessfully invoked by the Government in the Matrix Churchill case.

Liberty, formerly the National Council for Civil Liberties, and Labour's home affairs team have been trying to find out for some time how often ministers use PII certificates to prevent documents being used in court cases, sometimes to the detriment of defendants.

The Attorney General's office and the Treasury Solicitor's department admitted yesterday that they keep no long-term record of the use of such orders. It took almost two weeks for the departments to furnish the Prime Minister with just six months' figures.

The number of PII certificates invoked and the admission that no central records are kept of their use provoked an angry response from Labour and Liberty. Alun Michael, a Labour home affairs spokesman, whose parliamentary question led to Mr Major's disclosure, said: 'It would appear that the system is lacking in control and scrutiny.

'I was shocked that it took the Prime Minister so long to find out how many certificates had been issued. The lack of control and scrutiny is unacceptable when you consider how seriously the imposition of a PII certificate can affect a defendant's case in a criminal trial.

'I would like to see a greater degree of scrutiny by the Government's law officers to keep an eye on the process and ensure it is not abused.'

John Wadham, Liberty's legal officer, said concern was growing among lawyers and academics that PII certificates were being used more often than in the past, although the Government's lack of records prevents comparisons. 'The certificates are being thrown around like confetti,' he said. 'No one has been able to get detailed figures from the Government on the use of PIIs, but anecdotal evidence would suggest that they are being used more often. We were shocked to find that no one is keeping long-term records.

'This is an issue of fundamental importance. Often, without the documents the Government seeks to withhold, innocent people could be convicted and, in civil trials, justice would not be done.'

The use of PII certificates has come under scrutiny since four were signed by ministers - Michael Heseltine, Kenneth Clarke, Malcolm Rifkind and Tristan Garel-Jones - in an attempt to prevent disclosure of documents that subsequently proved the innocence of the three Matrix Churchill defendants. Recently, certificates were used to withhold documents in a union action against the pit closures. And this week, Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, invoked PII on documents relating to the case of Paul Bennett, who claims British police were inolved in his illegal deportation from South Africa.

The Prime Minister's reply to Mr Michael said ministers signed two certificates in June, two in July, six in September, three in October and two in November. It is clear that the six in September included four relating to Matrix Churchill, but Downing Street said last night that it was 'not in a position to say which other cases were involved'.

Joe Jacob, a public law specialist at the London School of Economics, said the only safeguards built into the control of PII certificates related to post- war guidelines on the 'uprightness' of ministers and their advisers. 'The machinery required a degree of trust, but the system seems to fail once that trust is called into question. It seems that this crowd have it in their heads that their interest is the national interest in a way that, frankly, is wholly new.'