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Shut out: The UK Supreme Court’s first "secret hearing"
Bank Mellat v HM Treasury UKSC 2011/0040
The Supreme Court held a hearing in secret today, for the first time in its history.
According to the BBC, the justices spent 45 minutes in a locked session with a security guard stood outside the door to prevent anyone from entering. The hearing was so sensitive that the justices had to leave one courtroom and set up in another which had greater soundproofing.
The hearing arises out of the Treasury’s decision in 2010 to ban an Iranian bank from operating in the UK, using powers under the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008. The government alleged that the bank had been indirectly involved in financing companies linked to the Iranian nuclear programme.
At first instance, Mr Justice Mitting permitted some of the government’s evidence to be adduced behind closed doors on grounds that it contained sensitive material that may compromise national security. The first instance judgment was therefore produced in two drafts, with only the redacted version being made available to the public.
A nine-strong panel decided that the court did have jurisdiction to consider the closed judgment, but would only do so if persuaded (on the basis of submissions in open court) that it was necessary for the purpose of fairly disposing of the appeal. At that stage the court was not so persuaded. Lord Hope described the government’s refusal to spell out even its basic national security case in open court as ‘cloak and dagger stuff’ that was ‘difficult to swallow’.
The court was reluctantly persuaded this morning that it was indeed necessary to consider the closed judgment and that this would necessitate a closed hearing. According to Lord Neuberger ‘unless and until an appellate court sees the judgment, it often cannot be sure its contents will be irrelevant or that its contents have been fully gisted’. He went on ‘no doubt in due course when we have completed the closed hearing…we will have quite a few things to say about this unhappy procedure.’
The court clearly has it in mind to use this episode to issue guidance to other courts faced with similar requests for a closed hearing. But whatever tests and safeguards are laid down, the use of secret courts is bound to become more widespread with the passage of the Justice and Security Bill.
Where litigants are prevented from seeing the State’s evidence against them, hearing its submissions on that evidence, or understanding what part that evidence played in their claim being dismissed, the balance of justice is dangerously skewed. And far from being immune to these changes, PI litigation, employers’ liability in particular (for instance, claims by wounded servicemen against the MoD) may yet become the area of law most acutely affected.
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