Ken Clarke defends controversial plans for secret courts


Terri Judd
Wednesday 13 February 2013 00:24

Ken Clarke conceded that tax payers' money could have gone to terrorist organisations as he defended controversial plans for secret courts.

Facing intense questioning from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Mr Clarke argued that the government's recent rejection of amendments introduced to the Justice and Security Bill by the House of Lords were necessary. Ministers wanted to give maximum discretion to judges, the cabinet minister said, to balance matters of national security with fair justice..

The government insists that proposals for “closed material procedures”, where evidence could be heard in secret, are necessary as it has been forced to abandon cases - such as the one brought by former Guantanamo Bay detainees - and pay out compensation because it could not introduce sensitive information from intelligence sources.

“We are not naive. Some of that money quite possibly made its way to terrorist organisations,” Mr Clarke said.

Human Rights campaigners have warned that if ministers get their way then secret material, which will not even be disclosed to the opposing claimant, would be used to defend serious allegations. The only people allowed to be present would be the judge, the government itself and a government-appointed special advocate.

Yesterday shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter said: “Ken Clarke still does not understand the inherent unfairness of one side having all the facts to argue and not the other side. This is fundamentally underminding English law.”

Meanwhile the legal charity Reprieve accused the minister of showing “alarming disregard” after he rejected some of the questions from the joint committee as “legalistic hair-splitting”

Reprieve“s Executive Director, Clare Algar said: ”Secret Courts would overturn the centuries-old principle that you have the right to hear and challenge the evidence used against you in court, and that justice should be seen to be done.

“To describe concerns over the abandonment of open and equal justice as 'hair-splitting' shows a casual disregard for Britain”s hard-won legal freedoms which is frankly alarming.“

As he gave evidence before the joint committee, Mr Clarke faced claims that his plans would undermine ”the primacy of open justice“ and might deny complainants access to evidence that they had been tortured or subjected to unlawful ”rendition“ to another state.

But the minister insisted that the alternative was the current system of Public Interest Immunity (PII) certificates, under which a judge is asked to exclude from a case altogether evidence which might damage national security. If a PII is refused, it can result in the authorities conceding defeat and paying out compensation rather than revealing secrets.

”Those who oppose my Bill prefer silence - that the evidence is never taken into consideration. You just pay out and the plaintiff gets his money,“ said Mr Clarke.

Pressed over the danger that his proposals would create an ”inequality of arms“ because plaintiffs will not be able to apply for CMPs in the same way as defendants, Mr”Clarke“said he was willing to look at the issue.

But he told the committee: ”We are getting down now to slightly legalistic hair-splitting about people trying to conjure up features of the Bill as it stands which could possibly be used adversely to the plaintiff.“

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