Law chief defends 'complete integrity': Attorney General attacks 'media myths' but admits 'excessive secrecy'. David Connett reports

The Attorney General's much anticipated appearance at the Scott inquiry opened with a strong defence of his position, but quickly became an ordeal in the face of rigorous questioning.

In a statement, Sir Nicholas Lyell attacked the 'fundamental misconceptions' and 'myths' created by the media, including that Public Interest Immunity certificates were 'gagging orders'.

The idea that ministers who signed them in the Matrix Churchill case were 'thereby suppressing documents to save themselves while risking the defendants going to jail is utterly untrue', he said.

'My task as Attorney General is to act scrupulously and with complete integrity. I believe I have done so throughout.' He said his instructions to ministers was based on legal advice from two experienced barristers, advice which had subsequently been supported by Court of Appeal decisions.

A House of Lords ruling in 1967 established that, except in a 'clear case', the balancing of the public interest in maintaining Whitehall confidentiality against the interests of justice, was a matter for the courts, not ministers, he claimed. On this point Sir Nicholas found himself pressed by Lord Justice Scott and Presiley Baxendale QC, the inquiry counsel.

Asked to explain ministers' role in more detail, he insisted that all they were required to do when claiming PII in a criminal case was determine that documents fell into a category entitled to protection. Prosecuting counsel, not the minister, decided the relevance of the documents to the case.

Lord Justice Scott asked: 'The minister is the custodian of the public interest. If in relation to his documents he doesn't really mind whether they are disclosed and he doesn't think there is going to be any damage to the public interest that matters, then why should he claim PII. What is the point?'

Sir Nicholas was questioned on the way intelligence officers - whose evidence is normally protected - were allowed to appear for the prosecution, while ministers sought to deny the defence access to intelligence papers.

'The prosecution doesn't seem bound by the PII rigours in the same way the defence is,' Lord Justice Scott said. But Sir Nicholas defended a decision by the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, then Home Secretary, to permit an MI6 officer to give evidence. It was consistent with the 'clear case' exception.

The problem lay with PII practice, not the legal principles behind them. The law was even- handed between defence and prosecution. Sir Nicholas admitted he had not read the papers in the Matrix Churchill affair and did not know until the trial that one of the defendants worked for MI6.

He accepted that a lack of scrutiny by law officers may have meant the PII net was cast too wide in 'an abundance of caution and excessive secrecy' and the system needed to be improved.

The inquiry continues today.

Leading article, page 17

(Photograph omitted)

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?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy