Justice secretary Jack Straw has watered down proposals to hold inquests in secret in the face of strong opposition from journalism organisations.
Straw has tabled a series of amendments to the coroners and justice bill, currently going through Parliament.
Plans to exclude the public from some inquests were dropped from counter-terrorism legislation last year, but were revived in the coroners bill to cover cases involving sensitive information about national security.
In the new proposals, the rules governing non-jury inquests will be “significantly tightened” and the decision on whether to include the press and the public will be made by a high court judge rather than the secretary of state.
Straw said yesterday that he hoped that in “most cases” high court judges sitting as coroners would decide to use special measures similar to those used in criminal courts, rather than ordering a private inquest.
This would include summarising sensitive information to juries, known as “gisting”.
But he said: “There will be circumstances – I think they will be very few and far between – where the learned judge may decide that the only way in which the protected information can be the subject of a proper judgment by the court, but also protected itself, will be for the judge to sit alone without a jury.”
The Society of Editors has been among the groups urging Straw to scrap plans for secret inquests. Executive director Bob Satchwell said: “On the surface this looks like good news, but as usual we will have to look at the detail.
“We have continually said that going down the route of secret inquests in any shape or form is dangerous, at leasst Jack Straw appears to be listening. We will be looking at the detail of the amendments very carefully.”
Straw was grilled on the proposals for secret inquests when he addressed the Press Gazette Media Law conference last month.
He said at the time: “I think there’s a feeling among some commentators that every restriction of information must be to disguise some conspiracy, but this is nonsense.
“Worse still is the corrosive untruth that what the Government is seeking to build is some kind of Big Brother society.”
Straw said the number of cases that would be excluded under the proposed bill would be “a handful – one or two a year”.
“The information that is sought to be protected is nothing to do with the embarassment of Government,” Straw added.
“It’s everything to do with making sure that some innocent individuals are not at risk of being injured or killed.”