By Richard Beschizza, claims against the police handler at Hudgell Solicitors
Police forces across the UK are there to serve and protect – and that means we expect them not only to investigate crimes which have happened and bring those responsible to justice, but also to prevent crimes happening in the first place.
With that in mind, we all accept that their work involves an aspect of investigation and surveillance – undercover police work which requires the use of tactics such as listening devices and cameras when there is a reason to suspect serious criminal activity.
Such activity has been governed by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which requires public authorities, such as the police or government departments, to ensure any covert techniques to obtain private information about people is done so in a way which is ‘necessary, proportionate, and compatible with human rights.’
So, like so many areas of the law, this brings a grey area which can lead to powers being misinterpreted and people being denied their basic human rights.
There have always been concerns that this law has been misused in the past, but now perhaps there is cause for greater concern as a result of the newly enforced Investigatory Powers Bill.
Under this new legislation, changes have included the police being able to record everything you click on online, and it has already been dubbed the ‘Snoopers Charter’, as it will also give mass surveillance powers to a huge number of government bodies.
It means Internet service providers and app companies can collect and store users’ data and messages for 12 months, enabling law enforcement authorities to collect and then use as evidence.
Is this right, and do you feel happy that people can know everything you do online, from your holiday bookings to what you buy?
As specialist civil liberties solicitors, we share some concerns of campaigners who have spoken out against the new powers.
Campaign group Liberty labels powers ‘most extreme surveillance regime of any democracy in history’
Campaign group Liberty is asking the public to fund a judicial review, with director Martha Spurrier claiming the Government has ‘quietly created the most extreme surveillance regime of any democracy in history.’
The Government insists such powers are required to fight terrorism and crime and ensure public safety, but there have already been examples uncovered of local authorities in Wales using these spying powers for things as innocent as dogs barking or feeding pigeons.
Across the UK, 186 councils have used the surveillance powers, with some using it to monitor dog fouling.
Yes, these may be nuisances and something which needs to be tackled and stopped, but these powers are in place to help local authorities investigate matters such as rogue traders, consumer scams, the sale of counterfeit goods, environmental health issues or matters such as fraudulent benefits claims.
In such cases, surveillance can be understood, but it is hard to see how a dog barking can justify surveillance, as how on earth could that be said to be ‘necessary, proportionate, and compatible with human rights.’
Under the Human Rights Act, everyone has the right to respect for their private and family lives, their home and their correspondence, and these examples highlight how easily laws can be stretched and soon used to impinge on the privacy rights of individuals.
Police forces must tread carefully when using surveillance with action ‘necessary and proportionate’
It that means police forces will have to tread carefully when choosing to use these powers for their investigations. The temptation will clearly be there for them to stretch the boundaries of the law in cases where it is proving difficult to gather clear evidence,
Shadow Home Secretary Brian Paddick has quite rightly said that ‘spying on the public should be a last resort not an everyday tool’, and that must be remembered as police forces and government bodies.
In our work as specialists in handling cases of human rights breaches, we at Hudgell Solicitors have seen examples of police forces going beyond the law themselves when seeking to secure a conviction, and such breaches of human rights are simply unacceptable.
The law is there to help protect us and maintain our privacy as individuals – something which appears increasingly at risk in the modern age.