Court of Appeal overturns Government’s attempt to defend Guantánamo torture claims with secret evidence

May 4, 2010

 The Court of Appeal has today “firmly and unambiguously” rejected the government’s argument that it is open to a Court, in the absence of statutory power, to order a “closed material procedure” in relation to the trial of an ordinary civil claim, such as the claims of former Guantanamo detainees brought against the British Security Services and various government departments for alleged complicity in their torture and maltreatment over several years.

On 18 November 2009, in a highly controversial judgment, Mr Justice Silber ruled that in principle it was possible for a Court to allow a party to rely on closed evidence and closed pleadings in a civil claim for damages. As the law currently stands, if the government successfully claims “public interest immunity,” excusing them from disclosing material in the civil courts (for instance, on the grounds of national security) they are then not allowed to rely on the material. The government’s proposals would have meant that they would be able to rely on such evidence, the judge trying the case would be able to see it and make a judgment dependant on such evidence but the other party and their legal team would not be able to see it, respond to it or cross-examine witnesses on it . This was particularly troubling in the context of such serious allegations, leading the Claimants to appeal against the judgment.

Today, Lord Neuberger (Master of the Rolls), Lord Justice Maurice Kay and Lord Justice Sullivan unanimously agreed with the Claimants that such a procedure would undermine some of the most fundamental principles of the common law and fly in the face of the Civil Procedure Rules.

Their Lordships referred to the “cardinal requirement that the trial process must be fair, and must be seen to be fair… which under the common law means that a trial is conducted on the basis that each party and his lawyer, sees and hears all the evidence and all the argument seen and heard by the Court.” They also referred to another fundamental principle of English law that a party to litigation should know the reasons why he won or lost. 

Their Lordships commented that

“[i]f the court was to conclude after a hearing, much of which had been in closed session, attended by the defendants, but not the claimants or the public, that for reasons, some of which were to be found in a closed judgment that was available to the defendants, but not the claimants or the public, that the claims should be dismissed, there is a substantial risk that the defendants would not be vindicated and that justice would not be seen to have been done. The outcome would be likely to be a pyrrhic victory for the defendants, whose reputation would be damaged by such a process, but the damage to the reputation of the court would in all probability be even greater.”

Speaking after the judgment was delivered today, Sapna Malik, Partner at Leigh Day & Co, acting for Binyam Mohamed said: 

“We are delighted that the Court of Appeal has fully accepted the Claimants’ arguments that the government has been seeking to introduce, via the backdoor, unconstitutional and manifestly unfair measures to defend these most serious of allegations, which the Courts must be emphatically resist.”

Clive Stafford Smith, Director of Reprieve, who acted for Binyam Mohamed in the United States, said:

“Perhaps the most dangerous legacy of the ‘War on Terror’ is a creeping secrecy that threatens to shutter the workings of British justice away with access limited to a privileged few. We applaud the Court of Appeal’s excellent decision to keep our courts open, so that the British public may continue to see justice done in their name. It is crucial that our government accept this ruling, and stop hiding the mistakes of the ‘War on Terror’ years. We cannot learn from history unless we know what it is.”

For more information:

Sapna MalikPartner/Lead SolicitorLeigh Day & CoT: 020 7650 1245E: smalik@leighday.co.uk

Sharon StewardPress OfficeLeigh Day & COT: 020 7650 1319E: ssteward@leighday.co.uk