Juries – use in inquests – government proposals

Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, to drop plans to hold private inquests without juries.

Perhaps we are learning to appreciate and value some aspects of our legal system.  For example, the use of members of the public as jurors, when they participate in the inquest process.  

It is also perhaps ironic that our appreciation does not come from encouragement from the government, but quite the opposite - meddling or tinkering so as to attempt to undermine!  

Ordinarily inquests are conducted in public and are reported.  So what? some may say, but the government has argued that there are circumstances when inquests should be held in private for national security, crime prevention or diplomatic reasons (whatever they may be).

A proposal for non-jury inquests was included in the Coroners and Justice Bill earlier this year.  This provision was intended to cover situations involving sensitive information.  'Big Brother' some of you may say, and you may be right.

Originally the proposals were framed so as to enable a government minister to make the decision as to whether the press and public should be banned from an inquest.  This could have been seen as political intervention and unacceptable to bereaved families and other interested parties but in any event the Justice Minister, Jack Straw, introduced an amendment delegating the power to a High court Judge.

The openness and worth of inquests have been demonstrated on many occasions and in some cases criminal proceedings have come about as a result of the work they do.

Not surprisingly there has been some reaction from groups concerned with civil liberties and rights.

Fortunately the government has decided not to proceed with the proposals.

Liberty

Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil liberties campaign group Liberty, said: "We welcome this sane and humble climb-down".

"It was completely bizarre for a government that has spent over a decade lecturing the public about victims' rights to attempt to exclude bereaved families from open justice."

Amnesty International

Amnesty International UK campaigns director Tim Hancock agreed it was to be welcomed, adding: "When someone loses their life at the hands of the state, it's essential - and required by international law - that an independent and impartial inquiry finds out how and why it happened."

Parliamentary opposition

Last year’s Counter-Terrorism Bill originally included the proposal for secret inquests but was dropped due to parliamentary opposition.

The BBC reports that “Some MPs and human rights organisations were concerned that cases such as "friendly fire" military deaths and deaths at the hands of the police could be heard in private, instead of being subject to public scrutiny.”

Human Rights Watch

Ben Ward, associate director for Europe at Human Rights Watch, is quoted as saying the decision to abandon the plans was "A welcome development".

He said: "Had the proposals been passed, we might well have seen an inquest like the one into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes held behind closed doors."  Who can deny the public interest in the events that led to the shooting of Jean Charles?

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