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Leading article: Resist these attempts to make justice secret

Inquests should be free from the hand of ministerial interference

Thursday 22 October 2009 00:00 BST

Ministers appear determined to use the Coroners and Justice Bill as a Trojan Horse with which to smuggle authoritarian measures on to the statute book. They first tried to use the legislation to allow state bodies to exchange sensitive data on the public between themselves – until being forced to retreat.

Yet now clauses have been inserted into the bill which would allow inquests to be suspended and secret "inquiries" to be established in their stead. The House of Lords struck out these clauses last night, but the Government is not expected to give up this fight. This bad idea is not dead yet.

Reform of the inquest system might sound a trivial matter, but the potential implications of this bill are serious. These secret inquiries would be ordered by ministers and could exclude bereaved families, legal representatives and the public from attending. The Government would also be able to restrict any disclosure of documents and withhold parts of the final report.

Some inquests, particularly those after an individual has died in state custody, have the potential to be inconvenient to the authorities. It is easy to see why the Metropolitan Police, for instance, might have preferred the inquest into the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005 to have been held behind closed doors.

The families of those who died in the 7 July London bombings hope to discover from inquest proceedings the extent to which the bombers crossed the radar of the police and intelligence authorities before the attacks. If this bill is in place, they (and we, the public) might be denied access to such information.

The bill could also enable ministers to order inquests into soldiers' deaths to be held in secret to prevent embarrassing information leaking. Just such information emerged in the inquest into the death of Lance Corporal Matty Hull in a friendly-fire incident in Iraq in 2005. The coroner uncovered shocking evidence of the culpability of the American pilots involved.

The other advantage of secret inquiries, from ministers' point of view, is that they would reduce public pressure for independent investigations. It is difficult for the public to demand answers when they are not even allowed to see what the relevant questions are.

It is true that reform of the inquest system is needed. The local management of all coroners' courts has created bottlenecks in certain parts of the country, causing bereaved families to wait too long for answers. And one case, in particular, makes the case for reform eloquently on its own. Azelle Rodney was shot by the police in London in 2005. Yet, four years on, there has still been no inquest into his killing because police phone intercept evidence, which is relevant to this case, is not admissible in the courts. The obvious solution is to change the law to make such evidence admissible. Yet the amendments to this bill are designed not to shed light on such cases, but to keep them in the dark.

This latest episode is part of a clear pattern of behaviour from this government. From efforts to undermine the public right to a jury trial, to locking up terror suspects with only the scrutiny of a judge, ministers have pushed time and again for greater secrecy in our courts.

In a democracy, justice must be transparent and open to public scrutiny. From the Old Bailey to the lowliest coroners' courts, the same standards must apply. And this latest surreptitious secrecy grab must be resisted.

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