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Secrecy Bill 'undermines justice'

The Government is threatening to fundamentally undermine British traditions of open justice with proposed new laws, civil liberty campaigners have claimed.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke published his new Justice and Security Bill, claiming the proposals were substantially improved from those which went out to consultation last year.

The Bill creates new rules to hear evidence in secret, known as closed material proceedings (CMP), but only in civil court cases where national security is a factor.

Inquests have been removed from the CMP remit in a concession to campaigners opposed to the idea. But the Bill has still been widely attacked.

Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti said: "Not as spun but as published, this bill would end equal open civil justice, putting ministers and securocrats above the law.

"Judges are made fig leaves, robbed of their current public interest immunity (PII) discretion and so effectively required to comply with ministers' desires for secrecy. We knew the Bill would create a contest with one team permanently off the pitch. Now the farce is complete with a gun to the referee's head."

Liberty said the court is specifically ordered to disregard the possibility of protecting sensitive evidence under PII in doing so, making the judicial trigger a "complete fig leaf".

But launching the Bill, which was published after a first reading in the House of Lords, Mr Clarke said the plans had been improved following consultations. "Protecting the public cannot come at the expense of our historic freedoms. That principle is absolutely right and has guided the Government's response," he said.

"The Bill now ensures that no evidence given openly in court at the moment can be given in secret in future and gives the judge the final decision about whether any evidence at all can be heard in closed session. Only civil cases involving national security evidence will be affected. The proposals were never intended to apply to criminal cases."

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said the Government had been "sloppy" ever since launching its proposals on changing "our centuries-old system of open justice".

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