Civil litigation and the Justice and Security Bill

Much of my time over the past few weeks has been taken up on the standing committee scrutinising a most unusual piece of legislation – the Justice and Security Bill. When it comes to the British court system we expect that justice will be done. Yet there is a small, but significant, category of cases where justice is not being done at all.

These are civil litigation cases involving the security services, mainly brought by former detainees alleging mistreatment. The allegations needs to be examined by a court of Law, but the Government often has its hands tied, because defending the case would mean airing, in public, information that is sensitive to our national security. This could put the lives of brave men and women serving our country in the intelligence world and the armed forces at risk

Recently, a friend of mine, who had been badly wounded and decorated, was falsely accused of brutality in a secret operation. If the case were to come to court, under current law the government would either have to risk revealing highly sensitive information, or pay compensation to his accuser. In too many recent cases, it has reluctantly chosen the latter. This would leave a man like my friend not only physically injured, but with his reputation in tatters too.

Discovering that you can tell as big a lie as you like – and often walk away with a substantial sum of money – has resulted in an increase in the numbers of claims being made. On the other side of the coin, in cases where the claims may have some merit, the Government’s most secret actions are not being scrutinised by the judiciary, as there is no trial and the public is left with no independent judgment on serious allegations.

The bill we are debating would allow national security evidence to be taken in court under what is known as a Closed Material Procedure. This would mean that the hearing would go ahead as normal, up to the point where nationally sensitive material needs to be used in evidence. At this point, the non-government party – plus their legal representatives and any press and public present – would leave the court-room, leaving a Special Advocate to represent their interests.

Some people feel that hearing evidence behind closed doors runs counter to our national sense of justice. It does, however, seem to me to be a lot fairer than there being no hearing at all.

Published in the Whitstable Times on 14th February 2013