Page last updated at 16:48 GMT, Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Secret inquest plans brought back

The scales of justice at the Old Bailey
The bill is one of the largest introduced by the Ministry of Justice

Plans to exclude relatives, juries and the press from some inquests - on national security grounds - are being brought back by ministers.

They come in a new bill covering coroners, murder laws, witness protection and sentencing. Just months ago, similar plans were shelved.

The government says secret inquests, which many oppose, would prevent intelligence details from leaking out.

The bill also proposes abolishing the provocation defence in murder cases.

Other proposals in the Coroners and Justice Bill, which has been introduced by the Ministry of Justice, include:

• Witness anonymity measures for major gun and knife-crime cases, where witnesses face reprisals unless protected

• A new sentencing council aimed at more consistency in prison terms in England and Wales, which would help plan the number of cells needed

• A new scheme to stop criminals making money from their memoirs

• Clarification of suicide law to ensure that encouraging someone online to kill themselves is a punishable offence

• Military inquests to be held close to the family rather than the point of repatriation

• Driving bans to begin after any jail sentence for motoring offences

• Creating a new post of Chief Coroner for England and Wales

Oversight promise

Plans for secret inquests faced widespread opposition when first introduced in last year's Counter Terrorism Act.

Under the proposals, the press and public would be banned from inquests if the government says some of the circumstances of the death must be kept secret on national security grounds.

Ministers dropped the plans after opposition in Parliament, but pledged to reintroduce them in the New Year, promising greater judicial oversight .

The new proposals mean any decision by a minister to hold a secret inquest will be subject to judicial review. The Lord Chief Justice would appoint a High Court Judge to preside at any hearings taking place behind closed doors.

Liberal Democrat shadow justice secretary, David Howarth called the inquest proposals "dangerous".

"Many of us had hoped that ministers had seen sense after the plans were dropped from the Counter Terrorism Bill.

“Inquests allow the government to be held to account for deaths at the hands of the state. Holding them in secret, with coroners hand-picked by the government, would be another blow to our civil liberties,” he said.

Homicide law

The Ministry of Justice said proposed changes to homicide laws meant "those who kill out of anger face up to their crimes and the distress they have caused the families of their victims.

"The existing partial defence of provocation is too generous to those who kill in anger, and poorly tailored to killings in response to fear," it added.

The two partial defences to replace provocation would be killing in response to a fear of serious violence and killing in response to "words or actions" which caused the defendant to have a justifiable sense of being "seriously wronged".

Holding [inquests] in secret, with coroners hand-picked by the government, would be another blow to our civil liberties
David Howarth, Liberal Democrat shadow justice secretary

Anyone who discovered their partner was having an affair could not claim they had been "seriously wronged".

Current laws require victims of domestic violence to have acted on the spur of the moment, but the new law would allow them to cite the "slow burn" of attacks over a period of time.

A successful defence would see them punished for manslaughter rather than murder.

Prison pressures

The proposed new sentencing council for England and Wales will be charged with ensuring that guidelines on prison terms become more consistent from court to court, helping the Prison Service to better plan its resources.

Calls for the council first came two years ago, amid massive prison population pressures. But the proposals do not mean that sentences will be shortened if the number of available cells falls.

Measures in the bill to allow anonymous witness evidence to be used in gang and gun-related trials would make permanent, emergency legislation passed in 2008.



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SEE ALSO
The inquest that may never be
24 Nov 08 |  Magazine
Secret inquest proposal 'on hold'
03 Dec 08 |  UK Politics
Secret inquests plans 'dropped'
14 Oct 08 |  UK Politics

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