Using Special Advocates in Civil Litigation

November 19th, 2009 by Anya Proops QC

Yesterday, the High Court handed down a controversial judgment on the use of ‘the closed material procedure’ (CMP) in civil litigation: Al-Rawi & Ors v The Security Service & Ors (judge – Silber J). The background to the judgment is that a number of individuals who had been detained at Guantanamo Bay had brought claims for damages against the defendants on the basis that they had caused or contributed to the claimants’ unlawful detention and ill-treatment by foreign governments. A preliminary issue then arose in these cases as to whether the defendants could put evidence before the court using the CMP. The CMP, in effect, allows defendants to put documents in evidence before the court whilst at the same time withholding them from the claimants. The only way in which the claimants have any say on the closed material is through the use of special advocates appointed to act on their behalf. However, the role of special advocates is heavily circumscribed, not least because they cannot convey to their clients the content of the closed material.

 

The CMP has formerly been used in the context of deportation appeals heard by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC). However, the CMP has not previously been a feature of civil litigation. Instead, in the context of civil litigation, if the government was concerned that the disclosure of particular information would be contrary to the public interest, the best it could hope for was to rely on the public interest immunity (PII) procedure. The crucial difference between the PII procedure and the CMP is that the former procedure operates so as to ensure that the PII material is not put before the court at all, whereas the latter procedure allows the government to put the closed material before the judge whilst at the same time not disclosing that material to the other side. Thus, there is an inherent asymmetry present in the CMP which is not present in the PII procedure.

 

In a controversial judgment, Silber J decided as a preliminary issue that use of the CMP was permissible in a civil claim for damages, albeit only in exceptional cases. In reaching this conclusion, Silber J rejected arguments that the High Court had no jurisdiction to permit the use of the CMP; that use of the CMP was inconsistent with the requirements of the CPR and that it was otherwise at odds with the established PII procedure. It is highly likely that this judgment will go on appeal. 11KBW’s Karen Steyn acted on behalf of the defendants.