A law is being passed that could potentially haul Britain’s judicial system back into the dark ages. It’s called The Justice and Security Bill – set to become effective on the 8th of May – and will give judges the power to deny those on trial the chance to hear evidence that's being used against them in court. If the judge does decide that a certain case should be heard in a "secret court", the press – and, by default, the public – would also be left in the dark.
It's likely that the "secret court" will be applied to high-profile cases relating to national security, government corruption or crimes of war – the crimes that everyone cares about and wants to read about the most, basically. So not only does it set itself up as a potential cloak for corruption and abuses of power, it's also punishing the rest of the country who want to wildly speculate about them based on three paragraphs of rudimentary trial information.
To an extent, this isn’t a new thing: Closed Material Procedures (CMPs), in which the accused isn't informed of the evidence against them, have occasionally been used in cases where delicate foreign relations are at stake. But this bill could see these measures implemented on a wider scale, as well as – more worryingly – allowing the extension of CMPs into civil courts, the ones that deal with disputes between individuals.
That means – hypothetically, of course – that you could find yourself living out your own Orwellian nightmare, dragged up in front of a judge for pissing off a couple of neighbourhood narcs with a noisy barbecue, totally oblivious to what it is you did wrong.
At any hearing in Britain, there's a chance that evidence could only be presented to the judge and security-cleared "special advocates". Those special advocates are a group of lawyers thrown between the judge and the prosecution to suss out what kind of case they might be planning. (So, it's kind of like throwing acid in the eyes of the accused, then offering them a guide dog with glaucoma as compensation.) Seriously, we haven't seen this kind of thing since the 14th century, when Edward I realised that detaining suspects without reason might be kind of barbaric.
Some speculate whether the pressure to enforce the bill came from the intelligence services. Others are sure that it's happened due to diplomatic pressure from America, who are reluctant to share vital security information with the UK unless we exercise greater control over our courts. Sort of like that blip in the early 00s when the Labour government took America on its word all the way to the Middle East. Historically, this sort of thing hasn't tended to end particularly well.
Ken Clarke. (Photo via.)
There have already been disputes in Parliament over the proposal. The bill was first breathed into life by everyone’s favourite cuddly Tory Ken Clarke, who, until now, would seem to have held fairly digestible views by Conservative standards. The Labour Party then tried to make amendments in order to ensure that CMPs be convened only if a judge rules that it would be impossible to reach a fair verdict "by any other means". But the coalition were so eager to make sure this didn’t happen and rush through the bill, they tempted Lords peers to work late the night of the final vote by showing screenings of The Queen and the latest Bond film – a solid effort that saw the labour amendments outvoted by a majority of 16 and the bill passed.
It’s a move that has sparked fear among legal commentators: Amnesty, freedom of speech charity PEN and human rights charity Reprieve have all registered their concerns. That's because the Justice and Security Bill will allow potential human rights abuses to be swept into secret courts and out of public sight.
For instance, if the bill had been in place when the MOD paid £14 million in compensation to hundreds of Iraqis found to have been illegally incarcerated and subjected to torture, they could have done so without the public ever finding out about it. And as Clare Algar from Reprieve pointed out earlier this year, it could see an increase in cases such as that of British resident Binyam Mohamed, accused of partaking in a "dirty bomb" plot and sent to Guantanamo Bay before the plot was proven to have never existed. This isn’t just about privacy, but in cases where evidence is withheld, commentators are worried that the accused party could potentially be incarcerated on fairly flimsy grounds.
At best, the secret courts will prevent government wrongdoing from ever reaching the public. At worst, it will affect all of our legal rights and civil liberties. As Henry Porter, UK editor of Vanity Fair put it: “We have become liberals of the consumerist age, keen on personal choice and the expression of individuality, yet with little understanding of the way freedom is maintained from generation to generation.”
So the Prime Minister’s wife can have a dolphin tattoo on her ankle and dress like Lil Kim, with scant regard for the statutes on which an open-minded society exists. That is, one where the government is held accountable for its actions, not just by the courts but by the public; one that grants any person the right to hear all of the reasons for why they’re being incarcerated or tried in court. “Liberal politics is about trying to bring about that equality of power between people and government,” Porter continued. “In supporting the press charter and the Justice and Security Bill, the Lib Dems failed that cause.” Yep, that’s right: the forgotten housewife of British politics Nick Clegg and his gang have given this thing the go-ahead. Aside from highlighting the sorry state of their political conviction and ethical judgement, it shows the distance between civil and governmental rights is getting wider. Don’t let them shouting down that racist councillor and his "sexual volcano" fool you.
We’re entering a phase of acute human rights disruption that could potentially have devastating affects for each and every one of us… if we have the misfortune to end up in a closed British court.
Illustration by Victoria Sin
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