In the Media

Secret inquests plan dropped but some information may still be kept hidden

PUBLISHED May 19, 2009

Controversial plans to hold some inquests in secret have been abandoned by the Government because of a lack of support.

However, some inquests may now be replaced with public inquiries, which would allow some details to be kept secret, if they involve sensitive information.

The power to hold inquests involving issues of "national security" behind closed doors, and without juries, was contained in the Coroners and Justice Bill currently going through parliament.

It had faced severe criticism amid fears it could have been applied to inquests on 'friendly-fire' military casualties or cases similar to the death of weapons expert Dr David Kelly, or Jean Charles de Menezes, shot by police after being mistaken for a suicide bomber.

Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, yesterday confirmed he was now dropping the plans because it did not command the necessary cross party support.

Tim Hancock, campaigns director for Amnesty International UK, said: "It's worrying that the government may still try to keep families and the public in the dark by using the Inquiries Act 2005.

"Under the Inquiries Act the government can control who sits on an inquiry, it can order part of the inquiry to be held in private and it can decide which of the findings are published and which remain secret.

"If secret inquests are dropped but replaced by secret inquiries, this 'climbdown' may do little to increase government transparency. The Inquiries Act should go the same way as the proposals for secret coroners inquests ? it should be scrapped."

Secret inquests were first proposed last year but dropped from counter terror legislation only for them to be revived in the Coroners and Justice Bill.

In the face of a fresh wave of criticism, Mr Straw moved in March to tighten the rules, insisting the final decision would rest with a high court judge, rather than the secretary of state.

But yesterday, he said: "However, following further discussions in the House and with interested parties, it is clear the provisions still do not command the necessary cross party support and in the circumstances the Government will table amendments to remove Clauses 11 and 12 from the Bill."

The Government's majority was slashed nearly in half in March when a cross-party bid to block the move to hold secret inquests without juries failed in the Commons. There were 19 Labour rebels.

With those proposals now dropped, Mr Straw said: "Where it is not possible to proceed with an inquest under the current arrangements, the Government will consider establishing an inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005 to ascertain the circumstances the deceased came by his or her death.

"Each case will be looked at on its own individual merits.

"As with the provision in respect of certification of coroners' investigations, we would expect to resort to such a procedure only in very exceptional and rare circumstances."

David Howarth, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, said: "These proposals should never have been brought forward in the first place and wasted a lot of Parliamentary time.

"The proposal to use inquiries instead is itself unsatisfactory, because presumably these inquires will be held by judges without juries. Jack Straw must not sideline juries.

Dominic Grieve, the shadow justice secretary, said: "This is yet another u-turn from a government whose authority is in tatters - and a great victory for British justice.