Secret justice looks set to be a regular feature of British courts and tribunals when the intelligence services want to protect their sources of information.
Civil courts, immigration panels and even coroner’s inquests would go into secret session if the Government rules that hearing evidence in public could be a threat to national security.
The proposals, which run counter to a centuries-old British tradition of open justice, were introduced to a sparsely attended House of Commons yesterday by the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke – and met almost no opposition. The planned changes to the British justice system follow lobbying of the Government by the CIA.
Civil rights groups warned a serious potential threat to individual liberty lurked behind the all-party consensus.
Mr Clarke is seeking to protect the Government from a repeat of a fiasco which has cost tens of millions of pounds and led to a breakdown in co-operation between British intelligence and an enraged CIA.
The best-known case involved Binyam Mohamed, a British resident who was held in Guantanamo Bay for five years, and started a claim for damages from the UK Government, which he accused of complicity in torture.
The Court of Appeal released a summary of CIA intelligence which supported Mr Mohamed’s claim that British intelligence officers knew about the torture of suspected terrorists.
The CIA was furious and halted the flow of information from its headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and other US agencies apart from in the most serious cases. MI6 and the Foreign Office also received complaints from a number of other allied states anxious that information provided on a confidential basis would leak into the public domain.
Faced with irate colleagues at Langley, the British Government paid out to 16 terrorist suspects, to prevent further damage to US-UK relations. Yesterday, Mr Clarke let slip that the cases had already cost around £20m. Another 30 are in prospect because, he told MPs, “it is becoming fashionable” to challenge the Government in court.
Officials have privately complained that they cannot defend these cases without compromising sensitive intelligence, which means suspected terrorists have been able to use the civil courts as a “cashpoint”.