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Government postpones plans for secret inquests

21 October 2008

The government has dropped plans for secret inquests from its Counter Terrorism Bill. However the Ministry of Justice promised to bring back the proposals when the long-awaited coroners’ bill is introduced in parliament.

The proposals would have given the home secretary extraordinary powers to intervene in cases involving sensitive information, including the appointment of specially vetted coroners.

Deaths in custody pressure group INQUEST said juries could have been excluded, along with bereaved families, their legal representatives and the public at large, in breach of Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Helen Shaw, co-director of INQUEST, said: “The proposals amount to a fundamental attack on the independence and transparency of the inquest system.”

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice said: “Both the House of Commons and the Lords have expressed a strong desire to debate the coroners’ proposals within the context of wider coronial reform.

“We will therefore be removing the proposals from the Counter Terrorism Bill and bringing them forward again in legislation to reform the coroner system more widely.

“The government recognises that in a very small number of cases of inquests a change to the law may be required to enable inquests to go ahead where highly sensitive material is relevant.”

A Coroner and Death Certification Bill is expected to feature in the Queen’s Speech, but a similar measure has previously appeared in the Queen’s Speech without being introduced.

In a separate development, the House of Lords has repeated its call on the government to stop ministers interfering with the judiciary.

The call was made in a report by the Lords’ constitution committee asking the government to update the ministerial code to give clearer guidance to ministers that they should refrain from publicly criticising judges and their judicial decisions.

It follows a similar move in last year’s report in which the lords criticised the then home secretary John Reid for making public statements about the sentence given in the Craig Sweeney case.

“It is important that government and ministers understand and respect the vital independence of our judiciary”, said committee chairman Lord Goodlad.

He added: “Before the establishment of the Ministry of Justice the government failed to consult with the Lord Chancellor or the Lord Chief Justice, who were supposed to be responsible for ensuring the views of judges where reflected in any changes.

“We call on the government to ensure that any future changes to the court system are preceded by proper consultation with all the relevant bodies.”

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