There were two significant reminders last week about the creeping use of secret ‘evidence.’ The first was the continued imprisonment of Marian McGlinchey (née Price) despite her three co-accused walking free when a judge threw out charges against all four. Marian Price was technically speaking already ‘out on bail’ in relation to these charges (which the Prosecution Service may now seek to resurrect). Her continued imprisonment relates not to a decision by a Court, but a separate procedure involving a government Minister and a Commission which can rely on secret evidence.
The second reminder was the UK Coalition Government’s inclusion of an ominously titled ‘Justice and Security Bill’ within the list of laws it announced it would introduce in the next Parliamentary session. The Bill would allow government Ministers to instruct ‘CMPs’ – Closed Material Procedures (i.e. secret evidence) be used in civil court processes. Our local circumstances were not for once the impetus for such a dramatic change (although as it could include the likes of ‘Troubles’ Inquests, it would have serious repercussions here). The move is in response to MI5/6 involvement in ‘war on terror’ practices such as ‘extraordinary rendition’ (i.e. the kidnap, torture and unlawful detention of persons) being increasingly challenged in Court, and in particular the compensation settlements being paid to Guantanamo Bay detainees. The Government argues it needs CMPs in order to allow secret trials to protect ‘national security. ’ They also conveniently reduce the potential to hold the Security Services accountable for malpractice or human rights abuses in which they are implicated.
There is general outrage from human rights groups over the proposals. Amidst this, we should not lose sight of the fact that secret evidence procedures already exist– many piloted and specific to this jurisdiction. Persons who have their fair employment discrimination claims blocked by a ‘national security certificate’ issued by the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) can only have their claims heard in a ‘special tribunal’ involving secret evidence – which predates its better known counterpart tribunal for persons subject to ‘Control Orders.’ CAJ has asked under the Freedom of Information Act how many certificates have been issued and how often the ‘special tribunal’ has convened – only to be told that the NIO ‘did not record’ such information. Should you be subject to such processes, you can expect that both you, your lawyer, and the public will be excluded from your court hearing. Secret ‘evidence’, usually based on security force intelligence data, is then presented against you, which you cannot challenge. A ‘Special Advocate’ is appointed to represent you but cannot discuss the secret ‘evidence’ with you. At best, you and your representatives are given a ‘gist’ of what is being alleged.
Similar procedures also apply for recalling to prison persons with conflict-related convictions who were released under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Such releases were ‘under licence,’ conditional on no re-involvement in paramilitary activity. The question which arises is how the conclusion is reached that someone has returned to such activity. The decision is not on the basis of a fresh conviction for a similar serious offence proved beyond reasonable doubt in a competent court, but rather a variation of the above CMP process involving the NIO, Secretary of State and a Commission, which can rely on secret ‘evidence’ in a closed ‘Special Advocate’ procedure. Marian Price was released long before the 1998 Agreement, having been convicted of bombing the Old Bailey in 1973, but issued with a royal pardon in 1980. A similar process exists under the Life Sentences (Northern Ireland) Order 2001 whereby the NIO Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, can provide the Parole Commissioners with evidence and invite them to make a recommendation to return an individual to prison. Such decisions can also be based on secret ‘evidence,’ including intelligence data, and do not require a conviction or even a charge. At worst, therefore, the process could be used selectively against ex-prisoners engaged in political activity outside the mainstream, rather than just against those genuinely involved in unlawful activity.
The case of Marian Price is particularly striking, as on the same day a Judge released her on bail in May 2011, a government Minister returned her to prison. There are other due process issues in relation to this case, not least the fact she was given a pardon under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy. The NIO claims this document only related to Marian Price’s fixed term and not life sentence for which a licence applied. Her family contest that the pardon related to both, and hence believe that the NIO had no licence to revoke. It would seem a relatively simple matter for the NIO to produce the document to settle the matter. However, apparently the pardon and all copies of it have gone ‘missing.’ Given that it could possibly change a decision as to whether a person is deprived of their liberty, one would think an investigation would have taken place as to how and when the information disappeared. CAJ has been told that the NIO have decided not to investigate this on the grounds that the pardon is ‘not relevant’ to this case. Whilst decisions in ‘special tribunals’ are made on the basis of evidence that defendants cannot see, it is difficult to understand how the NIO reached this conclusion without itself viewing the document.
The dangers of secret ‘evidence’ within the justice system were set out succinctly in the case of Al Rawi, and others v the Security Services. Here, the government tried to argue that legal norms over the years (the ‘common law’) meant that it had a right to hold civil trials in secret, despite no law permitting this. The UK Supreme Court threw this out, with Lord Kerr arguing that the “right to be informed of the case made against you is not merely a feature of the adversarial system of trial, it is an elementary and essential prerequisite of fairness.”
It is this case that has led to the present Justice and Security Bill introducing CMPs. In response, Special Advocates themselves have argued CMPs “represent a departure from the foundational principle of natural justice that all parties are entitled to see and challenge all the evidence relied upon before the court and to combat that evidence by calling evidence of their own.” Put simply, evidence cannot be relied upon if you cannot challenge it.
CAJ expressed concerns about the CMP proposals, given our experience that measures which effectively bypass rule of law standards and establish, in essence, a parallel justice system, lead to human rights abuses which can exacerbate conflict as well as contributing to the growing marginalisation of ‘suspect communities.’ A further problem highlighted above is that secret evidence tends to consist of intelligence data which the Police themselves are often keen to (rightly) point out does not necessarily constitute evidence. However, under the present recall arrangements, ‘intelligence’ can effectively be used as ‘evidence’ to put an ex-prisoner behind bars.
This is of course not the first time that intelligence rather than evidence has been used to imprison; previous policies of mass arrest and internment involved lists of suspects based on ‘intelligence’ data. The lesson needs to be learned that illegitimate state practices outside the standard rule of law do not prevent but rather fuel conflict. Further growth in procedures allowing secret ‘evidence’ would have serious consequences, but in Marian Price’s case, such consequences are already apparent.
Daniel Holder is Deputy Director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice
CAJ wrote a detailed response in January 2012 to the ‘Justice and Security’ Green Paper setting out the organisations concerns about the proposals – this is available here