Civil liberties groups today dismissed as 'spin' government claims that pre-publication changes to the Justice and Security Bill would protect the public without damaging 'historic freedoms' of open justice and accountability.
In a concession to critics of a green paper last year, the bill scales back plans for 'secret justice' closed material procedures. Justice secretary Kenneth Clarke said that the procedures would not be applied to inquests and that judges rather than ministers would decide when to apply the procedures in civil trials.
Clarke said that closed material procedure (CMP) provisions would allow courts to hold the security services to account without compromising national security. They would save taxpayers from having to pay out compensation, he said, by allowing the government to use security sensitive evidence to defend itself, rather than having to settle 'even when the case has no merit'.
A Law Society spokesman said: 'The secret justice proposals in the bill must not become a cloak for government to hide its blushes nor be allowed to deny justice to deserving cases.'
Roger Smith, director of campaign group JUSTICE, said: 'There is nothing wrong with the present system of public interest immunity [where one party argues that certain documents should not be disclosed to the other party because it would be prejudicial to the public interest] and we should stick with it.'
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.'
However, the Bar Council welcomed what it called 'the government's acknowledgement that judges, not politicians, are best placed to determine how evidence should be heard.'
Clarke said: 'We have consulted and listened to many critics of our original plans and have made substantial changes. Protecting the public cannot come at the expense of our historic freedoms.'