Judges often look at a person’s intention to understand the true meaning of their actions. A similar approach is needed with the controversial Security and Justice bill, which the House of Lords will begin reviewing on Tuesday (June 19).
The widely criticized bill would widen the use of secret hearings in the civil courts whenever national security grounds are invoked, excluding the person affected and his or her lawyer from the courtroom, thereby undermining a basic principle of justice: the ability to know the case against you. The bill would also prevent disclosure of material showing UK involvement in wrongdoing by other countries.
Notable opponents of the plans include most of the lawyers who act in secret hearings (known as “special advocates”) who are well placed to understand how such hearings undermine fairness. They are barred under current rules from consulting with the person on whose behalf they are supposed to be acting, or that person’s lawyers, about the secret part of the case.
Earlier proposals from the government to permit inquests into suspicious deaths to be held in secret and to allow secret hearings on even broader “public interest” grounds have thankfully been dropped, although opinion is divided on whether their original inclusion was merely a negotiating tactic.
The government’s intentions can be traced back to July 2010, when the Prime Minister first announced the proposals, alongside plans for an inquiry into UK complicity in torture and rendition, and changes to the guidance given to security services about interrogating suspects held outside the UK.
The announcement came after a series of embarrassing revelations under the previous government about UK knowledge and involvement in US and other government’s abuses against British citizens and residents in Guantanamo Bay, Pakistan and elsewhere.
The decision to hold an inquiry made all the headlines, and was welcomed at the time by Human Rights Watch and other NGOs. But when the terms of reference for the inquiry were made public in July 2011 it became clear that the government was not prepared to give the inquiry the independence and authority it needed to get to the truth, leading to a boycott by NGOs and lawyers. In January 2012 it was scrapped, with a commitment to hold a fresh inquiry at a later date.
The secret justice plans drew less attention at the time. The Prime Minister told Parliament that they were needed because the security services being “paralysed by paperwork” and Britain’s intelligence relationship with the US was being put in danger by public disclosure of US intelligence material shared with London.
But set in the context of the government’s efforts to limit its own inquiry and having seen the detail of its plans, it is evident that the government’s intention with the Justice and Security bill is to ensure that if abuses are repeated in future they will never see the light of day in British courts.
Recall how the previous Labour government fought tooth-and-nail for the British courts to prevent the publication of seven paragraphs of a court judgement in a civil case brought against the Foreign Secretary by former Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohammed.
As his lawyers have made clear, the material that the UK sought to block had already been made public in the US courts. When it was published, the real reason for the strength of the government’s objections became clear – the paragraphs showed that the UK knew early on that Binyam Mohammed was being tortured, a deeply embarrassing revelation.
The bill does contain one welcome element. The MPs and Lords who sit on the body that oversees the security services will now be appointed by parliament rather than the Prime Minister as now.
But the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) will otherwise remain toothless, with the Prime Minister able to veto investigations or block publication of material on broad grounds, and without the committee having the power to compel witnesses and evidence as the US Senate Intelligence Committee has. The Lords should use the bill as an opportunity to strengthen the oversight powers of the ISC.
Evidence continues to mount that the UK government was complicit in torture and rendition overseas. Last September, Human Rights Watch found evidence in Tripoli linking the British security services to the rendition of two Libyan men and a woman into the hands of the Gadaffi regime and the likely torture of the two men. Those cases are now rightly the subject of ongoing criminal investigations in the UK (the stated reason for halting the Gibson Inquiry).
The Libya cases are also the subject of civil suits against former UK government officials and the UK government itself. Those cases are an important measure of accountability and bulwark against future abuse. Yet if the government gets its way with this bill, such cases will be held behind closed doors, the victims and their lawyers, journalist and the public excluded. That is no justice at all.
Benjamin Ward is deputy director in Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division.