A legal challenge mounted by two MPs against state surveillance powers has been upheld by the High Court. The laws in question, the MPs claimed, gave security services and police the right to “spy on citizens” and lacked the safeguards that should such powers should be subject to.
Tom Watson, a candidate for the role of deputy leader of the labour party and David Davis, a former Conservative minister, said that these powers violated the human rights of UK residents. Two judges at the High Court ruled that this was indeed the case, deciding that the legislation allowing such surveillance breached both the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Human Rights Act.
The legislation in question was contained in the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act, which was passed last year. This allowed the UK’s security agencies and certain other public bodies to gather and retain information about who suspects are contacting by phone and email. While the content of these communications is not retained, a detailed record is kept of who people are contacting and when. The act was rushed through parliament as a piece of emergency legislation, passing in a matter of days. According to Watson and Davis, this meant there was no time for the act to be properly scrutinised before it was passed.
According to campaign group Liberty, which supported the two MPs in their legal challenge, the act “”It was privately agreed following discussions between the then three main party leaders. It became law within just three days – denying time for proper parliamentary scrutiny, amendment or even debate.”
The court’s ruling that this act is “inconsistent with EU law” has effectively rescinded certain parts of the legislation – though this will not take effect until March next year. The court’s decision comes at a significant time, as there is much discussion surrounding issues of state surveillance. Much of this stems from Theresa May’s controversial proposals, widely nicknamed the “Snoopers’ Charter”, which would allow even more comprehensive gathering of information on how people are communicating and using the internet.
A court challenge to primary legislation by MPs is very unusual, and some have called it entirely unprecedented.
The government has expressed dissatisfaction with the High Court’s ruling and has stated that it intends to appeal against the decision. John Hayes, the Security Minister, said: “The effect of this judgment would be that, in certain cases, communications data that could potentially save lives would only be available to the police and other law enforcement if a communications company had decided to retain it for commercial reasons.”