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Last Updated: Monday, 4 February 2008, 11:56 GMT
Is secret justice really justice?
By Chris Summers
BBC News

MPs and human rights campaigners have warned that the government is proposing to remove juries from some inquests and keep key evidence secret. Is it true, and what justification could there be?

Stockwell station after Jean Charles De Menezes was shot there
Next month a jury will hear an inquest in the Menezes case

When the Counter Terrorism Bill was unveiled in Parliament last month the focus naturally fell on the government's plans to hold suspects for 42 days.

Few noticed a clause in the bill which would allow the home secretary to create special inquests, without juries, for "reasons of national security" or "otherwise in the public interest".

Clause 65 would also allow the home secretary to name a "specially appointed coroner" to run an inquest, and remove the sitting coroner from the case.

Next month a jury is set to hear an inquest into the death of Jean Charles De Menezes, the Brazilian man shot by police after they mistakenly identified him as a suicide bomber.

Azelle Rodney
The Azelle Rodney inquest has hit a legal stalemate

Critics say the new legislation would give ministers the power to keep secret key evidence at inquests into incidents such as the Menezes case.

Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrat chairman of the Commons justice committee, said the proposal was dangerous, adding: "I'm not comfortable with a situation where a politician is deciding there shouldn't be a jury in a particular inquest."

Shadow home secretary David Davis said the clause would have to be "very narrowly defined" if it was not to be abused.

Missing passages

The legislation was constructed in an attempt to overcome the legal stalemate which has prevented a coroner holding an inquest into the death of Azelle Rodney, 24, who was shot dead by police in London on 30 April 2005.

In August, coroner Andrew Walker said he could not proceed with a full inquest into Mr Rodney's death because of a large number of redactions - passages crossed out - in police officers' statements.

Mr Rodney was under police surveillance in the run-up to his death and it is thought the redactions related to information which had been obtained by phone taps or bugs.

The government says it is trying to balance the idea of open justice with the need to protect covert surveillance methods used by the police and security services.

But Daniel Machover, solicitor for the Rodney family, said the government's reaction to the situation was wrong-headed and meant that his mother, Susan Alexander, would never be able to know the full truth about her son's death.

These proposals mean that ministers and those responsible for intelligence gathering will never be held properly to account for the validity of their tactics
Daniel Machover

Justice minister Bridget Prentice insisted the new powers would only affect a handful of inquests every year.

But Mr Machover said the legislation was wide-ranging and could affect inquests involving people who died in custody, British soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and even British citizens who die at the hands of "friendly" countries such as Israel.

Mr Machover said: "These proposals mean that ministers and those responsible for intelligence gathering will never be held properly to account for the validity of their tactics. It is a fiasco, bearing no resemblance to a fair system of justice."

The public will find it difficult to have confidence that these coroner-only inquests, with key evidence being suppressed, can investigate contentious deaths involving state agents independently
Helen Shaw
Inquest

The pressure group Inquest, which campaigns for the victims of deaths in custody, has written to Mrs Prentice to protest at the lack of consultation.

Inquest's co-director, Helen Shaw, said: "The public will find it difficult to have confidence that these coroner-only inquests, with key evidence being suppressed, can investigate contentious deaths involving state agents independently."

Mr Machover said the government's response to the Azelle Rodney case was an over-reaction.

Last year civil servant David Keogh and political researcher Leo O'Connor were jailed for leaking a secret government memo about Iraq. Parts of their trial at the Old Bailey was covered by the Official Secrets Act but although the press and public were excluded at times the case was heard by a jury and the two men's legal teams were allowed to stay.

David Keogh (left) and Leo O'Connor
The jury in the trial of David Keogh (left) and Leo O'Connor were sworn by the Official Secrets Act

A murder trial which started on Friday at the Old Bailey is also due to be conducted in similar circumstances after the Crown brought up the subject of "national security".

Mr Machover said: "There are ways of resolving this issue which do not involve kicking out juries, lawyers and families."

Political pressure

He said there was also a danger that ministers, under political pressure from foreign governments, would slap "secrecy certificates" on inquests which might be politically embarrassing for Britain's allies.

As the law stands, coroners in England and Wales must call an inquest into violent, unnatural or unexplained deaths. They must be held in public and a jury must be convened if the death occurred in certain circumstances, for example in custody or at the hands of the police.

Only 2% of inquests involve juries.

In Scotland there is a different system - of fatal accident inquiries.

Mrs Prentice said the secret inquests would comply with the Human Rights Act, even when material was not disclosed publicly.

She said: "The interests of the families can be fully represented by counsel to the inquest, and counsel will be able to see all the material in question."

The government published a draft Coroners Bill two years ago which stressed the importance of inquests being held in public, but it was not included in the Queen's Speech.



SEE ALSO
Backlash over jury ban proposals
03 Feb 08 |  UK Politics

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