Friday, June 13, 2014

If its not open, its not justice

Last week we learned that the British government had tried to pervert their justice system into a new Star Chamber by trying to hold a trial in secret. Yesterday, the Court of Appeal rejected the government's demand:

An attempt by the Crown Prosecution Service to hold a terrorism trial entirely in secret has been overturned by the court of appeal.

The request, unprecedented in recent criminal justice history, would have prevented anyone knowing even the identity of the two accused.

The compromise reached over the highly sensitive Old Bailey case, known formerly only as the crown v AB and CD, sets fresh standards for imposing restrictions on the principle of open justice.

The ruling follows a legal challenge by The Guardian and other media which succeeded in overturning the Crown Prosecution Service's attempt to conduct the case entirely in secret with the accused remaining anonymous - a procedure that would have been unprecedented in recent criminal justice history.

This is being hailed as a victory for open justice, but its worth noting how small a victory it is. The public will be allowed to know the identity of the defendants, the charges they face, and hear the opening statements and verdicts (and, if necessary, sentencing). But the bulk of the trial, the actual evidence which will allow us to assess whether the accused are innocent or guilty (and whether the government has been abusing its powers) will all be kept secret. Journalists will be allowed to attend, pending a future appeal about their reporting, but only under a stifling protocol which gives the courts complete control over all their notes. Open justice? Yeah, right.

The identity of witnesses can be protected (though not from the accused), and crucial evidence can be heard in camera if necessary. But these measures should be truly exceptional. To hold an entire trial under such restrictions turns it into a farce, and brings the justice system into disrepute. Whatever its verdict, this trial has no public credibility. If its not open, its not justice.