Robert Verkaik: Court of appeal has taken a welcome stand for fairness

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Judges are rarely given to hyperbole or intemperate language, even when deciding matters of huge constitutional importance. So when three members of the country's most senior judiciary say they have "taken a stand" against those who pose a threat to open justice, we should all sit up and take notice.

Yesterday's Court of Appeal judgment in favour of six former Guantanamo Bay inmates goes to the very heart of what constitutes a fair hearing in a British court.

The Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger, who headed a panel of three appeal judges, comprehensively rejected arguments advanced by the Government and MI5 that the men's claims for damages should be heard behind a veil of secrecy.

It is a decision that draws a welcome line in the sand concerning ministers' increasing reliance on procedures aimed at removing embarrassing material from the public gaze.

Ever since the terror attacks in New York on 11 September the most concerted threats to open justice have emanated from the secret services and their political masters.

The most damaging example was the recent attempt by the Foreign Office to gag the courts from publishing a summary of the evidence of what MI5 knew about the unlawful detention and torture of Binyam Mohamed. After a long-running litigation, the judges reluctantly overruled ministers' objections to the publication of the now-infamous seven paragraphs in that case.

But there is no doubt that the encounter has harmed relations between the Government and the courts, and may well have unsettled the judiciary's confidence in the veracity of the evidence, secret or otherwise, being submitted on behalf of ministers.

Ministerial-judicial relations reached a new low in February, when Government lawyers wrote to one of the judges in the Binyam Mohamed case, asking him to soften his criticism of MI5.

That tactic spectacularly backfired when the letter was made public and the thrust of the judge's comments was reinstated in his later judgment. The judge in question was Lord Neuberger – who clearly decided yesterday it was time to stand up for the principles of open justice.

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