Supreme Court sits in secret for first time in history

 

The highest court in the land controversially sat in secret for the first time in its history today but insisted it had reached the decision with "great reluctance".

The ruling is highly significant at a time when the Government's contentious plans for secret courts have caused outrage amongst human rights groups and led to several high profile Liberal Democrat resignations.

Today Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, said that he and his fellow eight justices has agreed to hold a closed hearing in the case of an appeal by an Iranian Bank, banned from trading with British companies under the counter terrorism act.

The UK’s most senior judge, who has always advocated open justice, said that they were “dubious” and “sceptical” about the Government legal team’s claim that they could not deal with the appeal justly without hearing its secret evidence but had agreed to a closed hearing to consider it.

“It must be emphasised that this is a decision which is reached with great reluctance by all members of the court; indeed it is a majority decision,” said Lord Neuberger.

Bank Mellat is appealing sanctions imposed by the Treasury in 2009, claiming it was unfairly accused of alleged links with Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programmes and the order is “irrational and disproportionate”.

Government evidence – kept secret on the grounds of national security - was considered by Mr Justice Mitting at the High Court when he made the order. Lawyers for the Government insisted that the Supreme Court justices would not have the full picture without considering the secret evidence while those representing the Iranian bank argued that such material – which it cannot see or defend itself against – should be excluded.

During legal submissions earlier this week, it was argued that the Supreme Court’s constitutional status meant that there was a greater burden on it to keep its work public than on lower courts. However, it would be in an unsatisfactory position if it was not allowed to see evidence on which the lower court made a judgement.

“No judge can face with equanimity the prospect of a hearing, or any part of a hearing, which is not only in private, but involves one of the parties not being present or represented,” said Lord Neuberger today, adding: “Nonetheless, as Parliament has decided that, in certain circumstances, such a procedure is necessary and permissible in a trial before a Judge, we have concluded that, on an appeal from a decision in a case where a Judge has considered closed material and given a closed judgment, it may be necessary for this court to go into closed session in order to dispose of the appeal justly.”

During the 40-minute closed session, the nine justices considered secret parts of Mr Justice Mitting’s judgement. Barristers representing the Treasury as well as Bank Mellat were present, though the latter cannot reveal details to the bank.

The Supreme Court said that it would only consider the secret evidence if it deemed it “absolutely necessary” and every effort would be made to give Bank Mellat as much access to information as possible.

Lord Neuberger added: “No doubt in due course when we have completed the closed hearing and (Michael Brindle QC, the barrister for Bank Mellat) has made his closing submissions, and we in due course consider the matter and give our judgment, we will have quite a few things to say about this unhappy procedure.”

Sarosh Zaiwalla  of Zaiwalla & Co, the London law firm representing the bank, said: “Although they do so with the greatest reluctance, The Supreme Court have said they will look at the closed judgement.

“HM Treasury are clutching at straws in their insistence that the Court should consider the closed judgement and I am confident that they will find nothing to justify HM Treasury’s decision to designate it.

“Britain is internationally recognised as a beacon of open justice and parties from all over the world come to the UK because of this. It is therefore of international concern that the United Kingdom’s Parliament has given the right to the Court to use this closed evidence procedure.”

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore