By Simon Hetherington
Back in the news this week is the inquest into the deaths in the 7/7 bombings. At the centre is the question of whether or not these deaths could have been avoided, and whether or not there was some shortcoming on the part of the police or intelligence services, or both.
A particular point under consideration, which went to the Court of Appeal, is whether or not the families of the victims of those atrocities, together with their legal representatives, are entitled to be present when evidence is taken relating to intelligence. The Home Office didn’t want them there, and attempted to prevent their attendance by invoking r 17 of the Coroners Rules (by which the public can be excluded for reasons of national security). Moreover, the Home Office argued that the coroner had an implied power to conduct proceedings in the absence of the public.
With a show of independence, the Court of Appeal disagreed on both counts. In a nutshell, the court said that interested persons who are participating in the inquest are not ‘the public’ in this context; and that any power to conduct closed proceedings has to be explicit.
Considering this decision both in its own circumstances, and in a wider context, it is a good one. The UK legal system has not been getting a particularly good profile lately, and this can act as a shot in the arm.
Coroners’ inquests constitute one of the most important avenues of justice. Whether it be a death on the operating table, or a complex and controversial event such as these bombings, the bereaved look to the coroner to see that the death is properly investigated so that redress can be made. In human terms, they need satisfaction. In social terms, they need to know that someone will be called to account. Such satisfaction and knowledge are poorly served by exclusion from the proceedings.
For the government to seek to restrict access to proceedings requires great justification. Given that, in the present case, we are not talking about general public admission, even greater reason is needed. Merely stating that the evidence is sensitive is not sufficient: the risks associated with open proceedings can be offset by enjoining the persons attending to silence. If the evidence being taken relates to whether or not the bombings were preventable, then those affected, in search of the facts and the justice of the case, deserve to hear it.
So the decision is to be welcomed. No doubt there are times when secrecy is necessary, but the right to challenge it is an equally necessary check. Secrecy is an implement and adjunct of power: this is said as neither criticism nor defence, rather as a simple observation. But it must be wielded for the right reasons – and those reasons tested. It is not to be used as a shield against justice, nor to spare anyone’s blushes.