Government proposals to extend the use of secret hearings in cases where evidence might compromise national security are a radical departure from the UK's 'traditions of open justice and fairness', MPs and peers said today.
In a critical report on the Justice and Security Green Paper, parliament's joint committee on human rights says the paper fails to justify a change in the law and that all other options should be explored before the government resorts to holding trials in secret.
It calls on the government to bring forward legislation to clarify how 'public interest immunity', which allows sensitive material to be protected from disclosure, should be applied to cases involving national security.
The green paper arose from the case of a former Guantanamo Bay inmate who applied to the English courts for compensation. The government was unable to defend the claim without disclosing material that, in its view, could have risked national security.
The paper on extending 'closed material procedures', published last October, was an attempt to avoid such a situation arising again.
The human rights committee, which heard evidence from justice secretary Kenneth Clarke and others, said that the government's proposals would have a 'very considerable impact' on the reporting of matters of public interest and concern, and would reduce public confidence and trust 'in both the government and the courts'.
Government plans to provide the US with a 'cast-iron guarantee' that it would not disclose shared evidence in a UK court are incompatible with the rule of law, the committee says. It calls instead for the government to legislate to 'remove any legal uncertainty' about the courts' powers to reveal national security-sensitive materials.
The committee's chair, Hywel Francis MP (Labour), said Clarke did not recognise that his proposals were such a 'radical departure from our long-standing traditions of open justice and fairness'. He said: 'Closed material procedures are inherently unfair and government has failed to show that extending their use might in some instances contribute to greater fairness. All other means should be pursued to allow proceedings to take place without resort to them.'