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Senior judges criticise Government's use of secret courts

Judges also lifted 'arbitrary and irrational' sanctions imposed against Iranian Bank Mellat

Terri Judd
Wednesday 19 June 2013 21:30 BST

The most senior judges in the land issued a damning indictment of the Government's policy on secret courts, accusing it of requesting unnecessary closed proceedings.

Alongside a judgement in which they also lifted “arbitrary and irrational” sanctions imposed against Iranian Bank Mellat, they issued a warning that secret hearings should only be used when “genuinely necessary in the interests of justice”.

The ruling comes just weeks before the expected expansion of closed material procedures (CMPs) following royal assent of the Justice and Security Act.

Bank Mellat was appealing sanctions imposed by the Treasury in 2009, which shut down its business in the UK because of alleged links with Iran's nuclear weapons programme. It denied any such links.

In March, the Supreme Court reluctantly agreed by a two-thirds majority to hold a CMP after the Treasury said that evidence it had against the bank was too sensitive to be heard publicly.

Reading out the judgement, Lord Neuberger President of the Supreme Court and an outspoken advocate of open justice, said: “Having held a closed hearing, it turned out that there had been no point in the Supreme Court seeing the closed judgment, because there was nothing in it which could have affected the Supreme Court's reasoning in relation to the substantive appeal on the 2009 Order.”

Lord Neuberger said conclusions could be drawn from the experience, adding “appellate courts should be robust about acceding to applications to go into closed session or even to look at closed material”.

Tonight the human rights charity Reprieve said the case seriously undermined the Government's claims it would only seek secret hearings only when absolutely necessary.

Corinna Ferguson, Legal Officer for Liberty, said: “Today's chilling judgment brutally exposes the Government's claims and lays bare its willingness to overstate the importance of secrecy to serve its own ends.”

Today the Supreme Court quashed the sanctions order, saying the bank was singled out in an arbitrary, irrational and disproportionate manner. It was given no opportunity to defend itself in procedures that were “demonstrably unfair”, the judges said.

Sarosh Zaiwalla, who represented the bank, said: “The judgement will put enormous confidence in the independence of the British Judiciary and sets an example that even controversial disputes can be resolved by applying the principle of rule of law through the British courts.

”Nevertheless, the reading of the closed judgement clearly contravenes the British principle of open justice, the bank's success demonstrates just how unjustified closed sessions are.“

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