In its early years, the last Labour government passed a sequence of what may be called “constitutional statutes”, including the Human Rights Act 1998, the Scotland Act 1998, and the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
But it is the (so far) lesser known Regulation of Investigatory Powers 2000 (“RIPA”) which may turn out to have the most practical political significance.
RIPA was enacted with a sense of necessity. The passing of the Human Rights Act, which was to take effect from 2 October 2000, required that an express legal basis be provided for a wide range of investigatory, interceptive, and clandestine activity.
Amongst the rights incorporated by the Human Rights Act is Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This provides a general right to privacy, and it requires that any interference with personal privacy has to be proportionate and be positively permitted by law. This meant that the old and illiberal notion that police forces and the intelligence services were able to do anything they liked, unless it was specifically prohibited, could no longer be sustained. The legal position was to be inverted. Passing an enabling statute was urgent.
And so RIPA was passed in July 2000, including detailed provisions on surveillance and covert intelligence sources, the interception of communications, and on acquiring data from telecommunications and other ervice providers.
Section 1 of RIPA provides that wrongful interceptions can be the basis of both criminal and civil legal proceedings. Glenn Mulcaire was convicted under section 1 of RIPA whilst Clive Goodman was convicted for conspiracy to commit an offence under section 1. The civil “tort” under section 1 is now an element of the various civil actions which have led to new information being passed to the police and a new investigation.
This new crime and statutory tort were a direct and under-appreciated consequence of passing the Human Rights Act.
Another provision of RIPA provides a legal basis for police forces to request and acquire data held by telecommunications and other service providers. (This, of course, happened before 2000, but did not really have its own statutory regime.) As I wrote yesterday, there are hundreds of these requests made every day, almost all of which lead to data being passed to the police promptly and silently. Again, the fact that each of these requests have to be documented is an effect of the Human Rights Act, even if in practice the requests are currently treated in a routine and administrative manner.
The mark of a political idiot is to take easy shots at human rights and civil liberties law. However, the incorporation of Article 8 into English law has, through the enactment of RIPA, provided an (albeit imperfect) means for protecting individuals from wrongful interceptions and for providing criminal and civil consequence for unlawful behaviour.
It is now obvious that RIPA and Article 8 are having a beneficial and practical effect in policing and media practice. A casual approach to interferences in another person’s privacy is becoming increasingly difficult one for someone with power to adopt. And so, at last, the police and the tabloid media are having to give proper regard to the privacy of the individual.
David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and is a practising media and telecommunications lawyer.