Freedom of speech campaigners have warned that allowing secret arrests – where the public lose the right to know who the police detain – could lead to abuse of power.
The warning comes after Lord Justice Treacy and Mr Justice Tugendhat appeared to back secret arrest powers in a response to a consultation on contempt of court laws.
In their response, the two senior judges back Lord Justice Leveson’s call for the names of those arrested or suspected of a crime to be withheld from the public.
Kirsty Hughes, chief executive of Index on Censorship, an international organisation that promotes and defends the right to freedom of expression, said: “Secret arrests go against the principle of open justice that the British legal system operates under.
“In effect the proposals could mean that people are arrested and taken into custody without anyone knowing. Although there will be occasions when the police are right not to reveal the names of people who are arrested, sweeping powers for secrecy could potentially be abused.”
The judges were writing to the Law Commission, the body that recommends law reform, which recommended last year that the Home Office and Association of Chief Police Officers should develop a national system under which “the names of arrestees will be released but that appropriate safeguards will need to be put in place”.
In their response, they said: “The police arrest many people who are never charged. If there were a policy that the police should consistently publish the fact that a person has been arrested, in many cases that information would attract substantial publicity, causing irremediable damage to the person’s reputation.
“Even if the fact that the person was not charged were subsequently published, that would not receive the same publicity, and would not prevent subsequent internet searches disclosing that the person had been arrested.”
They said their opinion reflected the views of various judges including the President of the Queen’s Bench Division Sir John Thomas, whose courts deal with libel.