Leading article: A welcome victory for liberty

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A reporter from this newspaper was yesterday allowed inside the only court in Britain which has, until now, heard all its cases in secret. The Court of Protection, set up under the 2005 Mental Capacity Act, has for the past five years secretly passed judgment on the affairs of thousands of people, including brain-damaged soldiers and people with Alzheimer's disease, who have been deemed incapable of making their own decisions.

The court has proved controversial, with more than 4,000 families making complaints about the way it operates. They claim it treats relatives with undue suspicion, pays risibly low rates of interest when it takes control of sufferers' bank accounts, and deducts large and unnecessary admin fees. Whether those claims are well-founded is hard to say, because the court has operated behind closed doors, in grave violation of the principle that justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done.

Yesterday's case was one of considerable public interest, since it centred around a severely disabled but gifted young pianist whom the Court of Appeal described as an autistic, self-taught, musical prodigy whose playing had brought him international recognition. But the reason this newspaper brought the legal proceedings, which the Appeal Court has upheld, was because of complaints made by thousands of ordinary families who have been forcibly separated from mentally-incapacitated relatives, restricted in their contact with them, treated as though they were potential fraudsters rather than loving carers, and handled with cold, inefficient bureaucracy. Yet it has been impossible to scrutinise those cases because of the closed doors of these court hearings.

Significant numbers of people are involved. The court has so far taken control of more than £3.2bn of assets. By their own admission, its officials take four months to process requests for the release of those monies. And the court pays just 0.5 per cent in interest to the families of these vulnerable people. In November, the then Justice Secretary Jack Straw ordered a review into the workings of the court. His successor, Kenneth Clarke, must expedite that.

It is the often-derided European Convention of Human Rights which has achieved this small victory by insisting that "freedom of expression" become a legal entitlement in domestic law. For the first time, our judges have acknowledged that this is not just a right to impart information but also a right to receive information too. It is a significant landmark in the battle for the freedom of the press.