The death of Lord Bingham, the former senior Law Lord (senior appeal judge in what is now the UK Supreme Court), silences a significant voice on the issue of how far incursions into human rights by the government can be justified by the “war on terror”.
Lord Bingham’s was a committed but moderate view which led him, perhaps unfortunately, to a sense that the judiciary must in a democracy with a sovereign parliament, craft a compromise on human rights with the political sphere, the legislature and the executive. His two judgments in the linked cases commonly known as “A v Home Secretary”, one on torture and one on detention without trial, bear witness to such a disturbing compromise. The torture case allows the possibility of people being detained without trial on torture evidence. The detention case judgment balked at simply declaring detention without trial wrong and refused to deal with whether there truly was an emergency in post-9/11 Britain sufficient to justify such detention.
While the cases were based on classic, text book subject matter regarding the rule of law, the use of torture and detention without trial, and Bingham’s rulings did not favour the government, his judgments nevertheless left open wide areas within which the executive may act apparently contrary to those principles.
Take the torture case, (reported as A and others v Secretary of State for the Home Department (No 2)  UKHL 71) which hinged on the use that could be put to torture evidence gathered abroad without the connivance of British authorities. Put briefly, Bingham said that such evidence could not be admitted in a court of law, including in the tribunal set up to hear appeals against arrest and detention of foreign terror suspects, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC). However, the authorities could act on such evidence if they came across it – they could arrest individuals on the basis of information got by torture. He says (at paragraph 47):
“I am prepared to accept … that the Secretary of State does not act unlawfully if he certifies, arrests, searches and detains on the strength of what I shall for convenience call foreign torture evidence. But by the same token it is, in my view, questionable whether he would act unlawfully if he based similar action on intelligence obtained by officially-authorised British torture. If under such torture a man revealed the whereabouts of a bomb in the Houses of Parliament, the authorities could remove the bomb and, if possible, arrest the terrorist who planted it. There would be a flagrant breach of article 3 for which the United Kingdom would be answerable, but no breach of article 5(4) or 6.”
Article 3 relates to torture, Articles 5 and 6 to detention and trial. Lord Bingham is saying security services are wholly free to act upon third-party foreign torture evidence to arrest and detain. This might seem reasonable if the security services could make their arrests, question the detainees and find admissible evidence for a trial. Unfortunately several appellants in the case were being held without trial (subject to an indefinitely pending deportation). On the face of it, the government lost the case since it wished to reserve the right to offer such evidence to courts. But Bingham’s subtle distinction not only did not help the appellants but it opened a wide area of operation for the security services to flout human rights. Read the rest of this entry