Plans for more secrecy slammed
Plans to extend the use of secret evidence in the judicial system would allow security services to hide from scrutiny in Northern Ireland, Amnesty International has warned.
New measures that propose giving the Government powers to withhold information on the grounds of national security could undermine public confidence in the rule of law, the human rights organisation claimed.
Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International Northern Ireland programme director, said: "This law would give the Government powers to hide from open scrutiny in a court of law actions by its agents in the most controversial of cases, including where the security forces themselves may be implicated in human rights violations."
There are a range of civil proceedings in Northern Ireland dealing with the legacy of the conflict which might well be affected by the introduction of secret evidence. These include judicial reviews of investigations into conflict-related deaths by the PSNI, the Historical Enquiries Team and the Police Ombudsman, as well as civil actions for damages relating to ill treatment and unlawful killings.
The controversial new proposals form part of the UK-wide Justice and Security Bill which will soon be debated in the House of Lords.
The Government can rely on secret evidence in about 21 contexts including during appeals against the imposition of terrorist prevention and investigation measures as well as national security deportation proceedings.
Mr Corrigan said: "If introduced, these secret evidence measures could contribute towards a dangerous unravelling of public confidence in the justice system in Northern Ireland, confidence which has already been shaken over the last year by revelations regarding the independence of the Police Ombudsman and recruitment by the PSNI."
He made the comments after Amnesty International launched a report severely criticising the growth in the use of secret justice measures over the last decade. In the 50-page document, the Justice and Security Bill is branded as a radical departure from the basic requirements of fairness in civil and criminal cases.
The report includes testimony from 25 barristers and solicitors as well as three special advocates who can see secret evidence but are forbidden from discussing it with the person affected.
Richard Hermer QC was among those to have contributed. "The idea that you could go to court having had the most terrible things happen to you to sue for justice and be excluded from the proceedings and at the end just be told you've lost without being given the reasons for that decision, runs contrary to all notions of fairness, the rule of law and open justice," he said.
A Government spokesperson said: "The point Amnesty have missed is that currently no-one - not the claimant, not their lawyers, nor the judge - can take into account or rely on national security sensitive evidence. The result is that cases collapse and we never get to the bottom of serious allegations made against the state.
"The Justice and Security Bill will fix this problem by allowing the national security evidence which is excluded under current rules to be heard in a closed procedure. Closed justice is never ideal, but it is better when the alternative is silence.
"The Bill will increase scrutiny of the security and intelligence agencies by ensuring that civil cases which are currently not heard, will be heard; and that allegations which are made against the Government are fully investigated and scrutinised by the courts. Nothing that’s currently heard in open court will be heard in secret in future.”