Page last updated at 14:58 GMT, Friday, 15 May 2009 15:58 UK

Straw drops secret inquest plans

Jack Straw
Jack Straw tightened the proposed rules in March

The government is dropping plans to hold secret inquests without juries, Justice Secretary Jack Straw has said.

In a Commons written statement, Mr Straw said the move did not command the necessary cross-party support, despite earlier government concessions.

It was included in the Coroners and Justice Bill earlier this year to cover cases involving sensitive information.

Civil liberties groups who feared cases like that of Jean Charles de Menezes would be affected, welcomed the move.

The government had argued that in some cases inquests should be held in private for national security, crime prevention or diplomatic reasons.

We welcome this sane and humble climbdown

Shami Chakrabarti, Liberty

In response to criticism, Mr Straw tightened the proposed rules in March. He altered the plans so a High Court judge, rather than ministers, would have the final decision over whether the press and public would be banned from an inquest.

In his statement on Friday, Mr Straw said: "The government felt these changes struck a fair and proportionate balance between the interests of bereaved families, the need to protect sensitive material and judicial oversight of the whole process.

"However, following further discussions in the House and with interested parties, it is clear the provisions still do not command the necessary cross-party support and in the circumstances the government will table amendments to remove clauses 11 and 12 from the bill."

He added that where it was not possible to proceed with an inquest under existing arrangements, the government would consider establishing an inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005 instead.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil liberties campaign group Liberty, said: "We welcome this sane and humble climb-down.

"It was completely bizarre for a government that has spent over a decade lecturing the public about victims' rights to attempt to exclude bereaved families from open justice."

Parliamentary opposition

Amnesty International UK campaigns director Tim Hancock agreed it was to be welcomed, adding: "When someone loses their life at the hands of the state, it's essential - and required by international law - that an independent and impartial inquiry finds out how and why it happened."

The proposal for secret inquests was originally included in last year's counter-terrorism bill but was dropped due to parliamentary opposition.

Aspects of it were subsequently revived in the Coroners and Justice Bill, with ministers promising safeguards.

But some MPs and human rights organisations were concerned that cases such as "friendly fire" military deaths and deaths at the hands of the police could be heard in private, instead of being subject to public scrutiny.

Ben Ward, associate director for Europe at Human Rights Watch, said the decision to abandon the plans was "a welcome development".

He said: "Had the proposals passed, we might well have seen an inquest like the one into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes held behind closed doors."

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