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The Sketch: Holding inquests in secret: that'll shut everybody up

  • @SimonSketch

Secret inquests, held without a jury. Is this an idea whose time has come? The Public Bill Committee is going through the text of the Coroners and Justice Bill.

The proposal is this. The state is involved in the death of someone – in police cells, in prison, in a shooting incident, on the battlefield in Afghanistan – and the minister decides to hold the inquest beyond the public gaze.

Is that odd, at all? There are usually juries in these sorts of matters. Ordinary people have been sitting in judgment for centuries. Too long, some think. Yes, true: it's against the spirit of the times. Ordinary people have no expert knowledge of the sensitivities involved. And our intelligence relationships with foreign countries demand great sensitivity. Also, the safety of our police is paramount – it's the first duty of officers these days to protect the safety of themselves.

And, of course, national security. That shuts everyone up.

David Howarth, the Cambridge MP, thinks this is drivel. As does Edward Garnier for the Tories. As does Liberty, as does Inquest, the coroners organisation, as does... almost everyone. Possibly not the police, who may be behind this nasty piece of work.

The way the Bill is worded, the Minister of Justice can use five grounds to bang up the inquest. Mr Garnier pointed out how a police officer can – and has – used a clause in the Counter-Terrorism Act to confiscate a camera from a member of the public who'd photographed the officer committing a traffic violation. That's the trouble: if they can, they will.

Would the Menezes inquest have been held in public under this law? Like fun. Under all five provisions of the Bill they could have held it in secret. To protect "national security" (terrorists shouldn't know how incompetent our police were). To protect "the relationship between the UK and another country" (ditto foreign governments). To "protect the safety of a witness or other person" (the head of the Met, for instance).

James Gray mentioned the Hercules that went down in Iraq killing 10 servicemen – the coroner criticised the US intelligence sharing (very relationship-damaging), and the British Government for not having flame suppressant foam in the plane, and made £30m of safety recommendations.

If they could pull it off, all military inquests would be held in secret. The several oppositions agree there are occasions when secrecy is required, and agree with Mr Howarth that coroners should operate according to the same rules of secrecy as High Court judges in espionage or terror trials. That's the answer. But the Government is asking a different question.