Government concedes polices on lawyer-client snooping were unlawful
February 18, 2015
The UK Government has today conceded that its policies governing the ability of intelligence agencies to spy on lawyer-client communications were unlawful, in response to a case brought by two victims of an MI6-orchestrated ‘rendition’ operation.
Abdul-hakim Belhaj and Fatima Boudchar were tortured and rendered to Libya in 2004 in a joint MI6-CIA operation. They filed a case in 2013 with the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) concerning alleged eavesdropping by UK intelligence services on their confidential communications with their lawyers.
In 2012, the Belhaj family had brought a separate, civil case against the UK Government over the part it played in their mistreatment. The IPT case centred around whether Government lawyers and officials involved in the civil case could have, through surveillance, gained access to confidential communications between the family and their lawyers, thereby giving the Government an unfair advantage.
Today, the Government has conceded that safeguards to prevent this from taking place were inadequate, and did not meet the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). However, the Government has yet to say whether or not these failings of policy specifically affected the Belhaj case, which is due to see a further hearing in the IPT on 10th March.
Cori Crider, a director at Reprieve and one of Mr Belhaj & Ms Boudchar’s lawyers said: “By allowing the intelligence agencies free rein to spy on communications between lawyers and their clients, the Government has endangered the fundamental British right to a fair trial. Reprieve has been warning for months that the security services’ policies on lawyer-client snooping have been full of loopholes big enough to drive a bus through.
“For too long, the security services have been allowed to snoop on those bringing cases against them when they speak to their lawyers. In doing so, they have violated a right that is centuries old in British common law. Today they have finally admitted they have been acting unlawfully for years.
“Worryingly, it looks very much like they have collected the private lawyer-client communications of two victims of rendition and torture, and possibly misused them. While the government says there was no ‘deliberate’ collection of material, it’s abundantly clear that private material was collected and may well have been passed on to lawyers or ministers involved in the civil case brought by Abdul-hakim Belhaj and Fatima Boudchar, who were ‘rendered’ to Libya in 2004 by British intelligence.
“Only time will tell how badly their case was tainted. But right now, the Government needs urgently to investigate how things went wrong and come clean about what it is doing to repair the damage.”
Notes to editors
1. For further information, please contact Reprieve on +44 (0) 207 553 8140 or email donald.campbell [AT] reprieve.org.uk
2. The emails from the Government in which it concedes that “since January 2010 the policies and procedures for the interception/obtaining, analysis, use, disclosure and destruction of legally privileged material have not been in accordance with human rights legislation specifically Article 8(2) of the ECHR” can be viewed here.