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Court rules 90s UK.gov wiretaps violated human rights

Home Office: What's it got to do with RIPA?

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Liberty called for an overhaul of RIPA yesterday after the European Court of Human Rights slapped the UK government over the way it applied the UK's previous interception legislation.

But the Home Office today said it did not see that the judgement had any implications for the UK's current suite of laws covering covert investigations.

The court ruled that the UK had violated article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, by tapping communications of Liberty, along with British Irish Rights Watch and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties between 1990 and 1997. Article 8 quaintly demands the right to respect for private and family life and correspondence.

The three human rights groups had claimed that the MoD’s Electronic Test Facility had eavesdropped on their phone, fax, email and data comms between 1990 and 1997.

The three had first lodged complaints with the UK’s Interception of Communications Tribunal, the DPP and the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, to “no avail” with local courts ruling “there was no contravention to the Interception of Powers Act 1985”.

Liberty et al then took the case to the European Court Human Rights, which after a mere nine years decided that there had indeed “been an interference with their human rights as guaranteed by Article 8”.

The court found that the 1985 Act gave the UK government “virtually unlimited” discretion to intercept communications between the UK and an external receiver, and “wide discretion” to decide which communications were subsequently listened to or read.” The government had guidelines to ensure a “safeguard against abuse of power", but these were not included in legislation, nor made available to the public.

The court concluded that the UK’s 1985 interception law “had not indicated with sufficient clarity... the scope or manner of the exercise of the very wide discretion of the conferred on the State to intercept and examine external communications” so as to guard against abuse of power.

The 1985 Act and the 1990s eavesdropping on Liberty and its Irish counterparts came against the background of the IRA’s armed campaign against the British state.

Over a decade on, and the 1985 Act has been replaced by RIPA. It has the same objective in detecting terrorism, serious crime and the like, but is more commonly known for being applied by local councils to people suspected to circumventing school applications procedures and not cleaning up after their dogs.

Gareth Crossman, Liberty’s Policy Director, said in a statement yesterday the judgement highlighted the need for a review of RIPA.

Liberty’s legal officer Alex Gask said: “While secret surveillance is a valuable tool, the mechanisms for intercepting our telephone calls and emails should be as open and accountable as possible, and should ensure proportionate use of very wide powers.”

Mark Kelly, Director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, said the judgement had clear implications for many other Council of Europe member states, including Ireland. ”Our lax data interception regime will require a thorough overhaul in order to ensure that it meets the standards required by the European Court of Human Rights under Article 8.”

The Home Office was less vocal, saying it did not think the judgement had any implications for RIPA. While yesterday's judgement concerned the 1985 Act, a Home Office spokesman said there were no legal challenges against RIPA. ®

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