The government sought to give the Secretary of State powers to issue certificates to hold ‘secret’ inquests in any case where he or she believes that material will be revealed which is contrary to the public interest. The unexpected proposals were contained in the Counter Terrorism Bill published in January 2008 and would have amended the CoronerThe legal official who orders a post-mortem and who is in charge of the inquest procedure.’s Act. The proposed amendments would have enabled some inquests to be conducted at least partly in private, with government-vetted coroners and government-approved counsel overseeing the ‘sensitive material’. Bereaved families and their legal representatives – as well as the public at large and the media – would be excluded from the process.
INQUEST believes the proposals amounted to a attack on the independence and transparency of the coronial system in England and Wales. They were fundamentally flawed; unsupported by evidence; disconnected from legal principles; and were devised without any consultation with stakeholders. We were particularly alarmed that the proposals should be contained in proposed Counter Terrorism legislation as this implies that there have been real issues that have arisen in relation to inquests that have involved questions of ‘counter terrorism’. We are at a loss to identify any such circumstances and lobbied hard to have these clauses removed from the Bill.
Concerted campaigning by INQUEST (with the support of a broad coalition including Liberty, JUSTICE, the Royal British Legion, Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission) resulted in cross-party parliamentary opposition to the proposal, including from the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Justice Committee. It was announced on 14 October that the controversial clauses had been dropped from the bill, though the government eventually re-introduced the same proposals in the Coroners and Justice Bill when it was published in January 2009.
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