'Victory For Rule of Law': Secretive Government Body Open to Court Challenge, Supreme Court Rules

‘Victory For Rule of Law’: Secretive Government Body Open to Court Challenge, Judges Rule

The Supreme Court has ruled that a secretive judicial body will be open to future challenges from the courts – a decision which campaigners say bolsters rights and democracy.  

Judges on Wednesday (May 15) ruled that decisions of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) – the court which hears cases on surveillance and the actions of the intelligence agencies – cannot be exempt from judicial review by the High Court if they involve an “error of law”.

It comes after a five-year legal battle led by charity Privacy International – who in 2014 brought a complaint to the IPT alleging that hacking by intelligence agency GCHQ breached UK laws and the Human Rights Convention.

The charity sought to appeal the IPT ruling that the hacking was lawful but was stalled for years after both the High Court and the Court of Appeal determined that the IPT is exempt from oversight by ordinary courts.

“[The Supreme Court’s] judgment is a historic victory for the rule of law,” said the Privacy International’s general counsel Caroline Wilson Palow.

“It ensures that the UK intelligence agencies are subject to oversight by the ordinary UK courts.”

All state bodies, particularly those with the powers available to intelligence agencies, must be accountable, and subject to the highest levels of scrutiny.

Megan Goulding, Lawyer at Liberty

Megan Goulding, lawyer at human rights charity Liberty, said: “Putting oversight of the intelligence agencies – with their sweeping intrusive powers under the Snooper’s Charter – beyond the review of ordinary courts, is not just undemocratic, but a sinister attempt to reduce the safeguards that protect our rights.

“All state bodies, particularly those with the powers available to intelligence agencies, must be accountable, and subject to the highest levels of scrutiny to ensure that they are not above the law. And of course the IPT itself must be held to account in its decision making, given the importance of its role.”

What Is the Background To This Case?

computer data internet code

Image Credit: Pxhere

In 2014, charity Privacy International took GCHQ to the IPT alleging that its hacking outside of the UK – as revealed in leaks by whistleblower Edward Snowden – were unlawful and violate the Computer Misuse Act 1990.

It also alleged the hacking breached Articles 8 and 10 of the Human Rights Convention (HRC) – protecting the right to privacy and freedom of expression respectively.

But, in 2016, the IPT ruled that hacking was currently lawful under UK law and under the HRC.

Privacy International sought judicial review of the IPT’s decision in the High Court.

The government argued that the IPT’s decisions cannot be judicially reviewed as the Regulation of Investigatory Power Act (RIPA) exempts it from challenge.

In 2017, High Court judges ruled in favour of the government, a ruling which was then upheld by the Court of Appeal.

However, Supreme Court judges ruled on Wednesday that the IPT can be challenged in the High Court.

It found that Parliament had not clearly expressed an intention to make the IPT exempt from challenge and that it would not be right for the IPT to be able to develop its own law.

Main Image: Defence Images/Flickr

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About the Author

Aaron Walawalkar

News and Digital Editor
Aaron is an NCTJ-accredited multimedia journalist focussing on human rights. His extensive reporting on rough sleeping in east London has been nominated for multiple awards. He has worked for regional and national newspapers and produced illustrations, infographics and videos for humanitarian organisation RedR UK. View all posts by Aaron Walawalkar.
‘Victory For Rule of Law’: Secretive Government Body Open to Court Challenge, Judges Rule
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