Justice Secretary says secret courts could save lives


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Inquests and court hearings should not be take place in public if they involve national security matters that could endanger life, the Justice Security said today.

Kenneth Clarke, responding to Nick Clegg’s earlier comments that he could not support the Government's proposals for more secret hearings in their current form, said he shared the Deputy Prime Minister’s concerns but felt that the cost of open justice could not be counted in lives lost.

The debate comes as MPs and peers on the cross-party Joint Committee on Human Rights said the controversial proposals were based on "vague predictions" and "spurious assertions" about catastrophic consequences.

The committee said that, in reality, the plans are a "radical departure from long-standing traditions of open justice" which should only be invoked when publicly disclosing sensitive material carries "a real risk of harm to national security".

The Defence Secretary countered the argument by stating that, rather than the ‘silence’ judges and coroners are currently met with when dealing with sensitive information, access to evidence would in fact be greater in a secret hearing.

Clarke told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We are trying to get the evidence in. Otherwise what happens is it is not just closed hearings, it's closed altogether.

Clarke also insisted that procedures had to be put in place to ensure foreign nations were happy to share intelligence with Britain without fearing it would be exposed publicly.

He said that, while he was unaware of specific details, he had been told that US agencies became "extremely cautious" after the Binyam Mohamed case, and felt the risk of highly sensitive material becoming public knowledge was "getting in the way" of investigations.

Mohamed's case risked damaging intelligence-sharing agreements between the UK and the US amid claims Britain published American intelligence that was not in the public domain.

Clarke recognised concerns over whether it should be the Justice Secretary who makes the decision on what material is heard privately and said he was committed to ensuring that it is a judge who has the final say.

He said: "We will be protected against terrorism, which we must be, but those security services will be more accountable to both Parliament and to the court, and more evidence will be heard by judges than is now."

He added that the powers to take evidence in secret should not apply to inquests, and that it must be judges who decide whether or not to use them in the small number of civil cases that throw up issues of national security that could endanger life.