Lords warn Government over ‘Henry VIII’ powers in secret courts Bill – ‘concessions’ over inquests could be reversed

June 17, 2012

A new House of Lords report has warned that measures in the Justice and Security Bill would allow ministers to reverse key ‘concessions’ – notably over inquests – which they claim to have made to controversial plans for closed courts.

The Lords Select Committee on the Constitution raises concerns about a “Henry VIII power” in the Bill, referring to a clause allowing the Government to expand closed proceedings “by order” to any court or tribunal, simply by amending the definition of “relevant civil proceedings.” The Committee warns that there is “an insufficiently robust safeguard” on the Government’s power to make these changes, noting that it “could be used to add inquests to the definition of ‘relevant civil proceedings’”.

This is significant as ministers claim to have dropped inquests from the scope of the Bill in response to widespread criticism. It now appears that ministers could simply add inquests at a later stage – through a process which would receive far less scrutiny. The report also criticises the proposed system of ‘Closed Material Procedures’ as being “one-sided” in favour of the Government the “reduction of the courts’ capacity to ensure fairness in civil proceedings”

Commenting, Reprieve Executive Director Clare Algar said: “Henry VIII seems an apt comparison for a Government which seems determined to put itself above the law. “Ministers’ claims to have listened and made concessions on their plans for secret courts are now rapidly unravelling. “A cursory reading of the Bill already shows that judges’ hands will be tied by the Government when it comes to deciding whether a case is heard in secret. Now we find that ministers have quietly empowered themselves to reverse their supposed ‘concessions’ when no one is looking.”


Notes to editors

1. For further information, please contact Donald Campbell in Reprieve’s press office: +44 (0) 7791 755 415 / donald.campbell@reprieve.org.uk

2. The House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution’s report on the Justice and Security Bill can be found here: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201213/ldselect/ldconst/18/18.pdf The relevant points are at paragraphs 18, 21,  32-33.

3. Further information on the Justice and Security Bill can be found at:http://reprieve.org.uk/investigations/secret_justice/

4. According to the Parliament website, Henry VIII clauses “were so named from the Statute of Proclamations 1539, which gave King Henry VIII power to legislate by proclamation.” http://www.parliament.uk/site-information/glossary/henry-viii-clauses

5. The Justice and Security Bill receives its second reading in the House of Lords on Tuesday 19 June.

6. Reprieve, a legal action charity, uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay. Reprieve investigates, litigates and educates, working on the frontline, to provide legal support to prisoners unable to pay for it themselves. Reprieve promotes the rule of law around the world, securing each person’s right to a fair trial and saving lives.  Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of Reprieve and has spent 25 years working on behalf of people facing the death penalty in the USA.Reprieve’s current casework involves representing 15 prisoners in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, assisting over 70 prisoners facing the death penalty around the world, and conducting ongoing investigations into the rendition and the secret detention of ‘ghost prisoners’ in the so-called ‘war on terror.’

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