Tuesday 5 March 2013

Secret Courts: The Very Illiberal Democrats

On the 4th of March 2013 the majority of Lib Dem MPs sided with the Tory government to shoot down two last minute amendments to the Justice and Security ("Secret Courts") Bill.

For those of you that don't know about what the Tory "Secret Courts" bill entails, here's a brief description: As it now stands, defendants (or claimants in civil cases) can be excluded from the hearings where their fates are decided; they will not be allowed to know what the case against them is; they will not be allowed to enter the courtroom; they will not be allowed to know or challenge the details of the case; and they will not be allowed representation from their own lawyer, but will instead be represented (in their absence) by a security-cleared "special advocate".

The House of Lords took exception to this brazen assault on the very concept of open justice and made several amendments to the bill, however the Tory led coalition simply unpicked them all in order to ram through the secret courts in exactly the illiberal and unjust way they envisaged them.

As a last ditch attempt to rescue at least some elements of open justice, Caroline Lucas of the Green party tabled two amendments. Firstly to block secret court proceedings in civil cases; and secondly to put an obligation on judges to consider "public interest in the fair and open administration of justice" before any secret court proceeding could be launched.

The government motivation behind the opposition to the first of the amendments is obvious. The government desperately want to avoid further outrageous cases like the Mark Kennedy case (the policeman that infiltrated an environmental movement, acted as an agent provocateur and formed sexual relationships with several women) and the Bob Lambert case (a policeman that stole the identity of a dead child to infiltrate an animal rights group, is accused of participating in a terrorist bomb attack, fathered a child with a fellow activist and then abandoned them completely when his deployment came to an end in 1989) being heard in open court. The whole reason for inclusion of civil cases in this legislation was to prevent the public from ever finding out about these kinds of revolting police activities again, Labour's amendment would have totally undermined that objective.

It is hard to see how it is possible for anyone with the faintest regard for the concept of open justice to oppose the second amendment. Who on earth could oppose the concept of making judges at least consider the public interest in the fair and open administration of justice before they decide to put a case through one of these secret courts?

Both of these moderate proposals were defeated by the government, with the backing of the vast majority of Liberal Democrat MPs.

What better word than "illiberal" is there to describe these proposals to strip people of their right to a fair and open trial?  How would you describe a system where defendants (or claimants in civil cases) and their lawyers are not even allowed into the courtroom, nor allowed to know what the details of the case against them is? "Totalitarian"? "Orwellian"? "Unjust"? "Fascist"?

However this legislative assault on the concept of justice is described, one thing is for sure: By helping the Tories force these secret court measures through, the Liberal Democrats have conceded the right to call themselves liberals. From here on in they are known to me as the Illiberal-Democrats.

Note: There were a few honourable exceptions on the government benches, MPs who stood with the Green party, Labour, the SNP, the SDLP,and Plaid Cymru in support of these last minute amendments to salvage some tiny elements of open justice. The members of the government that deserve some amount of commendation for still having the faintest regard for the concept of justice are:

Steven Baker Wycombe (Tory)
Michael Crockart Edinburgh West (Lib Dem)
David Davis Haltemprice and Howden (Tory
Tim Farron Westmorland and Lonsdale (Lib Dem)
John Hemming Birmingham, Yardley (Lib Dem)
Simon Hughes Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Lib Dem)
Julian Huppert Cambridge (Lib Dem)
Greg Mulholland Leeds North West (Lib Dem)
Simon Reevell Dewsbury (Tory)
Sarah Teather Brent Central (Lib Dem)
Andrew Tyrie Chichester (Tory)
Charles Walker Broxbourne (Tory)

Four members of the Labour oppostion voted with the government to block these amendments. The four totalitarians on the Labour benches with absolutely no respect for the concept of open justice are:

Hazel Blears Salford and Eccles (Lab)
Paul Goggins Wythenshawe and Sale East (Lab)
George Howarth Knowsley (Lab)
Jack Straw Blackburn (Lab

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1 comment:

PEte Roberts said...

I note you omit the Lib Dems who abstained to for completeness.

Annette Brooke Mid Dorset and North Poole LDem absent
Malcolm Bruce Gordon LDem absent
Lynne Featherstone Hornsey and Wood Green LDem absent
Mike Hancock Portsmouth South LDem absent
John Leech Manchester, Withington LDem absent
Adrian Sanders Torbay LDem absent
Ian Swales Redcar LDem absent
Mike Thornton Eastleigh LDem absent
David Ward Bradford East LDem absent
Jennifer Willott Cardiff Central LDem absent