We fought the law… and won!

The European Court of Human Rights today issued its judgement on the case that Penny Quinton and I have been taking against the government over section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. They have agreed that this piece of legislation offends against Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and does not contain sufficient safeguards for members of the public. [1]

The case stems from events in September 2003, when Penny and I were independently subject to stop and search under the Terrorism Act. We’d both been attending protests at the DSEi arms fair, myself partly for research purposes and Penny as an independent journalist. The campaigning legal firm Liberty agreed to take our cases and we spent several years going though the judicial review process, before finally taking it to the European Court last year.[2]

To finally win is fantastic news and sends a very strong signal to government about the limits to what is acceptable in combating terrorism. Section 44 is regularly abused by police who find it convenient for general policing. The problem is the legislation itself, which is screaming out to be abused. The Terrorism Act encourages police to perform stop and search ‘for the purpose of searching for articles of a kind which could be used in connection with terrorism’ (e.g. phones, maps, laptops, notepads, car keys) and ‘may be exercised whether or not the constable had grounds for suspecting the presence of articles of that kind‘ (Section 44(1)). When challenged by those seeking redress for misuse of these powers the constable should properly claim in court that he or she had no suspicion of the person they stopped and searched. Another reply might risk saying something that could be perceived as discriminatory or otherwise unreasonable, so why make your thoughts public? This is indeed how the officers reacted when we challenged their use of the Terrorism Act against protesters – we just don’t know why we stopped them. The Terrorism Act makes it easier to search people than any other police power and officers are encouraged not to disclose (or indeed use) any reasoning. So its hardly a surprise that hundreds of thousands [3] of stops under this legislation have created suspicion and fear of the state, while not one has led to an arrest on terrorism charges.

News reports are now available from the BBC, The Times, The Guardian, and quite a few more!

[1] The full judgement is available here: Gillan & Quinton vs. The United Kingdom (4158/05).
[2] Elsewhere I’ve written about why the judicial review process is blind to certain kinds of systematic misuse of police powers.
[3] 250,000 stops were made in 2008/9 and 117,278 in 2007/8.