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Secret courts one step closer

“The Ministry of Justice is transforming the justice system”, says its website. But behind the jargon of transformation, transparency and modernisation, there is an actual demolition of justice taking place in Parliament.

This ministry was set up under Blair back in May 2007 as part of New Labour’s “modernisation” of Britain’s legal system. This project of undermining long-cherished rights is enthusiastically being continued by the present government.

The Justice and Security Bill 2012-13, sponsored by Lord Wallace of Tankerness, has lumbered through three readings in the House of Lords and is now due for its second reading in the House of Commons. You can even follow its progress towards royal assent on this website. Its stated aim is to:

Provide for oversight of the Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service, the Government Communications Headquarters and other activities relating to intelligence or security matters; to make provision about closed material procedure in relation to certain civil proceedings; to prevent the making of certain court orders for the disclosure of sensitive information; and for connected purposes.

All openness and light, surely?

While the Bill’s progress is “open”, what is actually proposed is highly secretive and sinister. Its provisions give the secret intelligence services huge powers vis-a vis those they seek to try and punish. Ministers will have the power to obtain a “Closed Material Procedure” or CMP.

These procedures have previously only been used in relation to terrorism cases. They mean that, under the catch-all umbrella  of “national security” only the judge, the government’s lawyers and a “special advocate” appointed by the government will be allowed to know what is going on.

As the Guardian’s Nick Thornsby has pointed out, the CMP procedure is even more disturbing than a secret court. Its Kafkaesque provisions mean that “not only will the public not be able to hear the evidence before the court but the claimant – and his or her legal representatives – will also know nothing of what is presented.”

Even those of us not versed in the language of the legal profession can see that this spells serious dangers.  

The outcry from a raft of organisations and legal experts as the bill proceeded through parliament gives serious pause for thought. The BBC’s Dominic Casciani asks: “Are secret courts one step closer?”

Human Rights organisation Justice says the Bill’s provisions “could undermine public confidence in the administration of civil justice and damage the credibility of our judiciary”.

Liberty’s Isabella Sankey says:

The Government has not made the case for these illiberal proposals, which would change our justice system forever. These amendments may mean fewer miscarriages of justice but they do not undo the danger this Bill presents – minor nips and tucks won't make this chilling policy palatable.

Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK has said: Even with the changes made by the Lords, the Justice and Security Bill would allow the government to rely on secret evidence across the court system in an unprecedented way that is incompatible with full respect for the right to a fair trial.

Human Rights lawyer and Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers international secretary Bill Bowring, notes that the Bill “threatens to take Britain back to the 17th century, through the use of secret evidence”.

Earlier this year, former Director of Public Prosecutions Lord Macdonald warned that “secret trials [are] an attack on the rule of law”.

Will the Bill get through? Although the LibDems voted down the Bill at their autumn conference, most experts now believe it will be enacted in 2013. So, along with other serious inroads, such as the criminalisation of squatting, it’s clear that our legal rights are being whittled down.

Welcome to authoritarian Britain, home to more CCTV cameras per head of population than anywhere else, where the draft Communications Data Bill instructs internet service providers to collect and store your emails (the state can already intercept them) and where the police regularly invoke anti-terror laws against peaceful protests.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
4 December 2012

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Your Say

David Payne says:

As always Corinna, ‘On the button’.

It is something that will require unremitting vigilance, technology’s limitless devices like the promise of cool-calamine to that tormenting itch in the loins of State, for control. And, yet another elephant in the room, there is a feature of Governments’ grip on privacy, so Established that we have lost sight of it, in the double-act of the Electoral register and DVLA!

Consider that your inclusion on the first and licensing by the second, constitutes the two principle forms of identification required for any formal / financial activity in the UK. How many will have squared to the actuality that each involves the mandatory submission of personal information, under Statute with significant, concomitant penalties, pointedly identifying where you live (can be apprehended) – do so and you can see why they are so valued by those who feel the need to shadow you. BUT – how many fewer have had the street experience of the administration of these schemes to know the opportunity they guarantee to legitimatise the genuinely unworthy, via inclusion in primary national databases that are Vanguard to The Surveillance State. Read the extract(s) italicised below, from correspondence I have recently exchanged with Unlock Democracy (concerning The Electoral Register alone) in exploration of a wee spat about their opposition to the Government plan to introduce a legal Right to "opt-out" of registering to vote, not ‘an option’ they would hold, for any whose intellectual position demands that not to vote is as elemental a right as how to. The literal ignoring of my final submission, this time to C.E.O. Katie Ghose, confirms that they to do not countenance any challenge to the fulfilment of a particular set of ambitions. So much for Democracy. The final (in bold) section is particularly germane.

***It disturbs me that you are more concerned about those who wish to vote, finding that because they have (carelessy?) not registered they are debarred, than that the present authoritarian system is run principally for the benefit of the debt collection interests of the banking industry and Government and is coerced for that purpose, under legal threat. As for a mortgage (one of a feeble few justifications proferred to me), I can prove my address and identity in a number of ways and were it to prove an impediment not to be on the Register, then it shows us just another facet of the highly dangerous, hand-in-glove nature of the Government / Banking-Industry relationship which it does not require a reminder to know, has recently brought the world to financial mayhem and schemes of 'austerity' that are savaging the vulnerable in the interests of protecting established wealth & power. I'll be damned if anyone but anyone voted for that!!

As one who has managed properties for 30 years I have first hand evidence of the principle way in which the electoral register is utilised and the plague of ignorant, bullying, self-interested and automaton bailiffs I have to deal with is an outrage. It is not necessary to enforce registration under threat in order to protect an opportunity to vote for those who wish to - the annual warning would serve the function you seek to protect and with proper respect, if it arrived as a simple reminder - those who do not wish to register should not have to account to anyone in the matter.

But, to the nub. There is also the perverse consequence that so recklessly un-vetted is the information submitted, that it is a gift to felons, of the kind of reach that has Home Secretaries fevering for ways to further undermine civil liberties in the name of national security. I could get my name on the Electoral Register at a rented property with which my only association was a loose acquaintance. I can get a utility bill in my name with an anonymous phone-call, any or all of energy, water and council tax - and with these, ID and banking facilities follow and if my interests were illegitimate, from drugs and money-laundering to terrorism, I would be pushing at an open door. Not simply objectionable, it is potentially extremely dangerous and if there are 'benefits' to be gained from entry on the electoral register then they should be mine to elect, not stuffed down my throat.***

It really is that ridiculously easy and that patently insecure. So, to the salt of Statute and pepper of Predation add the exotic chase of cynicism and you have a veritable stew of intrigue in which to dip your daily bread. You just must, ask how such a glaringly vulnerable system can prevail if it does not serve with the permissions of a greater purpose. The cleverest of models, if on the one hand, it constrains towards obeisance, that national body of co-operative citizens while sametime leaving open the Nation’s rear-door to the feral few who roam the back alleys of bucolic Britain, it allows just enough hazard as will yield to the ‘capable’ interventions of The Police and Security Services and thereby justify the stealthy (function) creep of Government towards dystopia, the claim of threat to national security ever a device in population control where fear is fluently assuaged by the State’s indomitable assurance of containing any threat (given our licence), a comfort blanket for a populace too readily convinced of its vulnerability - and its authority quietly subsumed.

Of course, it can’t be left there, me open to the charge of conspiracist ravings. So let it be that the whole situation just exposes the hapless and uncoordinated nature of much of Government, its incumbents and their capricious (let us not dare ‘venal’) insistences, a bar-room brawl of proud intentions. In the first view while they want never to take their eyes of us, in this, while deafening us with warnings, they are not even watching our backs.

There, there – how does that feel now, not too tight is it, safe? Mmmm, your fingers are a bit blue….ah well…

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