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What is a Secret Law?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 19 November 2016
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A secret law is a law that is inaccessible to members of the public, usually as a result of concerns about national security. If someone violates a secret law, that person may go to trial without full disclosure of the charges, and the trial itself could be secret, to prevent security leaks. Such laws are a topic of lively debate. Historically, they were often seen in repressive regimes. In nations where secret laws remain on the books, some people advocate for exposing them and making the general public aware of their nature.

Governments pass secret laws to address specific safety and security concerns. In the United States, for example, certain laws pertaining to nuclear weapons and counterterrorism measures are classified due to concerns that information could fall into the wrong hands if they were publicly available. People with classified access can examine the laws, as may be necessary for people like nuclear scientists who need to comply with the law, but other people cannot.

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In a number of former communist nations, secret laws were a tool for controlling the population; a person could be arrested under a secret law and charged with threatening national security as punishment for engaging in a wide variety of activities. People might not be able to mount an effective legal defense as a result of being unable to read the law. Sealing such trials from the public could also mean that people might not be aware of an arrest and trial, or would be unable to testify in defense. People subject to laws they do not know about and cannot review are at a distinct legal disadvantage.

By its very nature, a secret law is difficult to identify, because people often cannot find evidence of such laws until the government declassifies them or someone acts as a whistleblower to find information about them. It is difficult to determine how many nations use these types of laws and to find out more about them. Activists may file freedom of information requests and other documentation in an attempt to see secret laws and other sealed documents.

Advocates for transparency and civil rights argue that a secret law should have no place in a free society. Members of the public should be able to access laws, memorandums, rulings, and other decisions freely. Proponents of classified laws and legal decisions believe they can play an important role in a national security program, where sometimes it may be necessary to limit access to materials in the interest of keeping a country safe.

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