The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 represents a two-fold assault upon a free society. By providing Governments with the capability to replace public inquests with secret inquiries, it undermines the transparency and openness of Government. By restricting freedom of expression where there exists no proven harm, it breaches fundamental human rights and risks exposing the UK to international ridicule.
The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 is among the worst pieces of legislation passed by the previous Government. While sections of the Act are primarily “tidying up” exercises and might be preserved, there are two sections of the act that are not compatible with any reasonable ideal of a free society.
The first of these relates to the ability to establish a secret judicial inquiry in place of a public inquest. It is true that in many cases public inquests lack credibility. It is also true that there is, on occasion, a need to preserve the secrecy of information vital to national security. However, the provisions of the Coroners and Justice Act go far beyond these legitimate concerns. The answer to the lack of credibility associated with public inquests does not lie in further secrecy; furthermore, the nature of inquests means that information critical to national security will very rarely, if ever, be exposed.
The other unacceptable provision of this act relates to the criminalisation of the possession of pornographic non-photographic materials depicting minors. Photographic and video child pornography is a genuine horror and its possession and circulation are rightly subjected to strict criminal penalties. While this is a restriction upon the freedom of expression, there is a clear and pressing justification; each image portrays an act of genuine abuse, and is the product of real and sickening suffering on the part of a child. However, in its zeal to be seen as “tough” on such materials, the previous Government allowed itself to be swayed by self-interested lobby groups, and introduced legislation which casts a great deal of doubt upon the legality of material whose production has involved absolutely no human suffering, and whose content is, in a majority of cases, entirely non-pornographic. The importance of comic books and animation, both in their home-grown format, and in the imported form of anime and manga, to both popular and high culture has increased in recent years. The provisions of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 carry a risk of criminalising the possession of material that is considered acceptable, and even of artistic merit, in most of the developed world. The vagueness of the act leaves much of the interpretation to police forces and the judiciary, but this can hardly be considered a satisfactory situation.
Other provisions of the Act are less offensive. The tidying up of laws relating to sedition and libel have some use, and could legitimately be retained. The same applies to the provisions relating to witness anonymity in criminal trials where intimidation is a real concern; the safeguards in place to preserve the rights of the defendant appear, in this case, to be sufficient.