On the 7th and 8th of July I went down to Parliament to watch CAAT and the Corner House return to court, this time for the Serious Fraud Office’s appeal hearing in the House of Lords. If you make it past security, agree to wear a little picture of yourself around your neck and meander round the stony labyrinth we call Parliament, you can sit in a little room with regal, furry wallpaper and watch the proceedings.
The results of this hearing – sadly not expected until October due to the Summer recess – will be crucial not only for CAAT and the Corner House, but also for the government. The case has brought under the microscope one of the main facets of Britain’s unwritten, tacitly approved constitution: that our legal system is, or should be, independent of the government. Whilst this is something that has been unanimously accepted as right for aeons, there are odd occasions when the principle is called into question. A decision on this matter is important as, having a legal system based upon precedent means that if a person can prove a particular principle in a British court, then it will open a gateway for all similar cases in future.
When the al-Yamamah deal was struck between the government and Saudi Arabia, a confidentiality clause was included, preventing the explicit terms of the deal from becoming public. This in itself is nothing remarkable; business arrangements of private corporations are often subject to some level of privacy agreement. What is remarkable is that allegations began to surface that this weapons deal worth billions was not as black and white as it should have been. Before long the Serious Fraud Office had no choice but to open an investigation.
The SFO investigations are in theory as plain an example of the separation of powers in a liberal democracy as one is likely to find. The UK government is not sovereign over all, and if it is suspected of wrongdoing, then by jove someone will go in and investigate.
That’s why CAAT and The Corner House are determined that the government and the Serious Fraud Office will not get away with scrapping the investigation following lobbying by BAE and a threat from the Saudi regime. That’s why the future of justice as we have long understood it hangs in the balance – the judges’ decision will determine not only the outcome of this case but set a precedent for how the government, corporations and foreign powers can act in the future too.
We eagerly wait for the judges to announce their decision on the hearing in October. But in the meantime, keep a close eye on the government’s Constitutional Renewal Bill. The government would like to legislate so that the Attorney-General can halt any fraud investigation or criminal prosecution just by citing ‘national security’. There would be no recourse to judges, courts and public appeal if this went through… A reaction to the recent SFO events perhaps? You decide.