Secret inquests, held without the press, public, or even family members, have been proposed today in a new government bill.
The Coroners and Justice Bill, released today by the Ministry of Justice, says inquests could be heard in private by a High Court judge, chosen by the Lord Chief Justice, “in order to protect the interests of national security, or the relationship between the United Kingdom and another country”.
Other reasons include “to protect the safety of a witness or other person” and “to prevent real harm to the public interest”.
The decision to take the inquest private would be made by judicial review, after a government request.
But critics have said information that should be made public, such as details of ‘friendly-fire’deaths, could be covered up.
Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, the group that campaigns for press freedom, told Press Gazette: ‘The final duty of any democratic state is to investigate sudden death of any of its citizens.
‘That should not be compromised – particularly if there is a suggestion that secrecy could be used to cover up the mistakes of government.
‘There are ways in which material relating to national security can be dealt with without compromising a system that has served this country, and its citizens, well for centuries.”
A spokeswoman from the Newspaper Society said: “We have a number of concerns on which we will probably lobby on over the Coroners and Justice Bill, including the provision for secret inquests.”
The society also has concerns on a crackdown on criminals publishing memoirs, also contained in the bill.
Similar plans for secret inquests were dropped last year from counter-terrorism legislation, following criticism.
Liberal Democrat shadow justice secretary David Howarth said: “Many of us had hoped that ministers had seen sense after the plans were dropped from the counter terrorism bill.
‘Inquests allow the government to be held to account for deaths at the hands of the state. Holding them in secret, with coroners hand-picked by the government, would be another blow to our civil liberties.”