Page last updated at 22:09 GMT, Monday, 23 March 2009

MPs back holding private inquests

Jack Straw
Mr Straw said that cases affected would be "few and far between"

MPs have backed government plans to hold inquests in private and without a jury in some sensitive cases, such as those involving national security.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw had made concessions so that a High Court judge, not a minister, would decide whether to hold proceedings behind closed doors.

But opposition parties and some Labour MPs insisted that the plans were still flawed and not necessary.

The proposal passed by 263 votes to 229 - a majority of 34.

The government's amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill says inquests should be held in private if they affect national security, the relationship between the UK and another country or the prevention or detection of crime.

'Fundamental change'

Plans to exclude relatives and reporters from parts of some hearings were dropped from counter-terrorism legislation last year, but were revived in the bill to cover cases involving sensitive information.

Talking about the provision for a High Court judge to make the decision, Mr Straw told MPs: "We've made a fundamental change in these proposals and those who say Parliamentary process doesn't work, I just simply say 'It does work'.

"These proposals are a million miles from where they started out in the original Counter Terrorism Bill."

Mr Straw said there was "no suggestion" that families would be excluded from an inquest conducted by a High Court judge, "except from the protected material", adding that such cases would be "few and far between".

For the Conservatives, shadow justice secretary Dominic Grieve said: "If families are deprived of having juries in coroner's inquests, then those inquests will be devalued to the point where they effectively cease to be of any real use at all."

He added: "This provision in truth simply isn't necessary."

Liberal Democrat justice spokesman David Howarth said some inquests "certainly" had to be held in private on the grounds of national security, but if a person died "at the hands of the state" a jury should be present.

He said: "It is unquestionably a crucial part of public confidence in the state, in the police, in the prison service, that there are ordinary people in the jury making judgments about these sorts of cases."

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