Committee hearing with Justice Secretary on Covid-19 must not be private, urges Society

Posted on: April 6, 2020 by Claire Meadows

A discussion of how the justice system is functioning amid the spread of Covid-19 with Justice Secretary Robert Buckland must not be held in private, the Society of Editors has urged.

The Society’s intervention comes as a publicised meeting of the parliamentary Justice Committee and Secretary of State Robert Buckland is due to take place tomorrow (7 April 2020) but will be held in private. A summary note of the discussion will be provided after the session has taken place, it had been announced.

Writing to committee chair Sir Robert Neill, Ian Murray, Executive Director of the Society of Editors stressed that any discussion surrounding the justice system and Covid-19 must be open to public scrutiny.

He said: “The Society is deeply concerned that, in contrast with the default position of openness and transparency in relation to committee hearings, the planned meeting with the Justice Secretary will not be open to public scrutiny. At a time when there are serious and well-documented matters of public interest related to how the justice system is coping amid the spread of Covid-19, it is concerning that both journalists and the public will be prevented from witnessing this importance discussion. As well as urgent issues around the spread of Covid-19 in prisons and the planned release of a significant number of prisoners, the public has a legitimate interest in hearing how the courts system is functioning amid the ongoing crisis and how justice is being maintained during this period.”

Murray said that while the Society appreciated that the ongoing situation around Covid-19 was likely to cause technological challenges, it is essential that the principles of openness and transparency are not lost during this crisis.

He added: “Given your committee’s important role in scrutinising the Justice Department on behalf of the public, I would welcome your assurances that, if a live-stream of the proceedings is unable to take place, then a full recording or transcript of the session, in its entirety, is provided online afterwards. Given the staggeringly high public interest in the actions of government department and public bodies at present, a summary note of the proceedings is not sufficient to ensure that the public has confidence in why decisions are being made in their name.”