MI5’s argument that the coroner for the 7/7 inquests has powers to hold closed sessions to hear top secret evidence has been dismissed as “hopeless” by a senior judge.
Coroner Lady Justice Hallett earlier rejected calls from MI5 and Home Secretary Theresa May for the families of those killed in the 2005 London bombings to be excluded from hearings while she examines highly sensitive intelligence material.
Lord Justice Maurice Kay and Lord Justice Stanley Burnton gave their reasons for rejecting a High Court challenge to the coroner’s ruling brought by Mrs May.
The judges agreed with Lady Justice Hallett’s interpretation of Rule 17 of the Coroners Rules 1984, which allows a coroner to exclude the public from hearings in the interests of national security.
But they said this does not include “interested persons” who are legally entitled to be represented at an inquest, such as the relatives of the 52 victims of the 7/7 attacks.
Lord Justice Stanley Burnton noted that agreeing to the Home Secretary’s argument that the coroner could choose who to exclude from closed hearings would involve “rewriting Rule 17”.
Lord Justice Maurice Kay highlighted the previous Labour government’s recent attempts to introduce provisions for closed hearings at inquests, none of which have come into effect. He said lawyers for MI5 and the Home Secretary had effectively tried to “pre-empt” legislation that was either not yet in force or had been rejected by Parliament.
The inquests into the July 7 2005 attacks on London’s public transport network will next year examine alleged failings by the police and MI5. Bereaved families want to ask intelligence officials why they did not follow up plot ringleader Mohammed Sidique Khan and his right-hand man, Shehzad Tanweer, after surveillance officers watched them meeting known terror suspects 17 months before the bombings.
The Home Secretary’s legal team argues that the coroner will not be able to reach accurate conclusions about MI5’s involvement in tracking the 7/7 bombers without seeing the secret evidence, which cannot be revealed in open sessions.
But Lord Justice Maurice Kay said inquests were “governed by the principle of open justice” except where specific laws allowed otherwise. He raised concerns about the possibility of the coroner reaching conclusions about the 7/7 attacks based on material that the bereaved families had not seen, leaving them unable to challenge the findings.