Last week, MPs voted to retain a law that allows civil courts to impose secrecy in national security court cases. The bill attempted to introduce extra safeguards onto to the controversial Justice and Security Bill. Crucially, the Justice and Security Bill will see close court procedure extend to all civil case, and grants the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) sweeping powers to scrutinise the security service.
Proponents of the bill argue that it will save millions of pounds that are 'wasted' on settling civil claims. The government are often prevented from challenging claims because it would reveal secret intelligence in open court. In 2011, sixteen terror suspects received a multimillion-pound payout after claiming they were mistreated by US and British security and intelligence officials.
The debate here is centre on the need to keep information from the public on grounds of national security and the necessity of open justice for the vitality of a democracy.
The bill, however, is disproportional in terms of the power it grants and the problems it will solve. The fact is, that there is no end to what this law could be used for. I, for one, would put as much faith in the England legal system, as much as anyone else who believed in the liberal and democratic framework which our present day societies are based on. The bill, however, will compromise the very founding traditions of English common law.
Under the law, a claimant would not be allowed in the court room, they would not know the case against them, and they would not be allowed a lawyer. So, the disturbing revelations that have come out of the open courts in the last decade regarding torture British citizens and residents, would now be a matter for the 'secret courts'.
Conservative MP Andre Tyrie said during the week that the term 'national security' is a broad umbrella; it encompasses wrongdoings such as renditions and torture, and could be interpreted to mean illegitimate protests and to thwart journalism. So, in reality, the bill could be applied to many things that do not directly jeopardise national security.
The bill, under this light, can be seen as an effective and convenient way to get rid of claims which shines scrutiny over British intelligence agencies. This will no doubt be a win for the security establishment as it will become harder for accountability and transparency to be reached amongst claims against them
The amendments that were shot down this week are evidence of this. The amendments allowed the claimant to appeal to the judge for a secret hearing, rather than it being a given. In other words, the judge would determine the weight of the interest of justice against the interest to national security. The two Labour amendments were defeated 297 to 226 and 298 to 225.
This is a dangerous bill that has the potential to set a worrying precedent, allowing convenience to trump justice. It undermines the ability of the court to play an independent and objective role in court hearings, and too easily will allow Government to escape accountability.
Cabinet minister Ken Clarke has said it is 'common sense' for sensitive evidence to be admissible in the courts without intelligence sources being exposed. However, one can't help to think that what may be 'common sense' today, might in fact, be tomorrow's indignity.