Privacy International wins “historic” victory over Government at Supreme Court

After a five-year battle with the Government, Privacy International has won at the Supreme Court, which has ruled that the Investigatory Powers Tribunal’s (IPT) decisions are subject to judicial review in the High Court. The Supreme Court’s judgement is said to be “a major endorsement and affirmation” of the rule of law in the UK. The decision guarantees that when the IPT gets the law wrong, its mistakes can be corrected.

The leading judgement of Lord Carnwath confirms the vital role of the courts in upholding the rule of law. The Government’s reliance on an ‘ouster clause’ to try to remove the IPT from judicial review failed. The judgement confirms hundreds of years of legal precedent condemning attempts to remove important decisions from the oversight of the courts.

Privacy International’s case stems from a 2016 decision by the IPT that the Government may use sweeping ‘general warrants’ to engage in computer hacking of thousands or even millions of devices without any approval from a Judge or reasonable grounds for suspicion. The Government argued that it would be lawful in principle to use a single warrant signed off by a Minister (not a Judge) to hack every mobile phone in a UK city and the IPT agreed with the Government.

Privacy International challenged the IPT’s decision before the High Court. The Government argued that even if the IPT had the law completely wrong, or had acted unfairly, the High Court had no power to correct the mistake. That question went all the way to the Supreme Court and resulted in this latest judgement.

In his judgement, Lord Carnwath wrote: “The legal issue decided by the IPT is not only one of general public importance, but also has possible implications for legal rights and remedies going beyond the scope of the IPT’s remit. Consistent application of the rule of law requires such an issue to be susceptible in appropriate cases to review by ordinary courts.”

Caroline Wilson Palow, Privacy International’s general counsel, responded: “This judgement is an historic victory for the rule of law. It ensures that the UK’s intelligence agencies are subject to oversight by the ordinary UK courts. Countries around the world are currently grappling with serious questions regarding what power should reside in each branch of Government. This ruling is a welcome precedent for all of those countries, striking a reasonable balance between executive, legislative and judicial power.”

Wilson Palow added: “The ruling paves the way for Privacy International’s challenge to the UK Government’s use of bulk computer hacking warrants. Our challenge has been delayed for years by the Government’s persistent attempt to protect the IPT’s decisions from scrutiny. We’re heartened that our case will now go forward.”

Simon Creighton of Bhatt Murphy Solicitors, who acted for Privacy International, said: “Privacy International’s tenacity in pursuing this case has provided an important check on the argument that security concerns should be allowed to override the rule of law. Secretive national security tribunals are no exception. The Supreme Court was concerned that no tribunal, however eminent its Judges, should be able to develop its own “local law”. The decision welcomes the IPT back from its legal island into the mainstream of British law.”

About the Author
Brian Sims BA (Hons) Hon FSyI, Editor, Risk UK (Pro-Activ Publications) Beginning his career in professional journalism at The Builder Group in March 1992, Brian was appointed Editor of Security Management Today in November 2000 having spent eight years in engineering journalism across two titles: Building Services Journal and Light & Lighting. In 2005, Brian received the BSIA Chairman’s Award for Promoting The Security Industry and, a year later, the Skills for Security Special Award for an Outstanding Contribution to the Security Business Sector. In 2008, Brian was The Security Institute’s nomination for the Association of Security Consultants’ highly prestigious Imbert Prize and, in 2013, was a nominated finalist for the Institute's George van Schalkwyk Award. An Honorary Fellow of The Security Institute, Brian serves as a Judge for the BSIA’s Security Personnel of the Year Awards and the Securitas Good Customer Award. Between 2008 and 2014, Brian pioneered the use of digital media across the security sector, including webinars and Audio Shows. Brian’s actively involved in 50-plus security groups on LinkedIn and hosts the popular Risk UK Twitter site. Brian is a frequent speaker on the conference circuit. He has organised and chaired conference programmes for both IFSEC International and ASIS International and has been published in the national media. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk UK at Pro-Activ Publications in July 2014 and as Editor of The Paper (Pro-Activ Publications' dedicated business newspaper for security professionals) in September 2015. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk Xtra at Pro-Activ Publications in May 2018.

Related Posts