Liberty and Others v GCHQ

by Naomi Colvin

The legal challenges made by Liberty, Privacy International, Amnesty International, the ACLU and others in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations had their first hearing in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal today. The IPT is the tribunal set up under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).  It does not usually meet in public, so the announcement below is a bit of a souvenir.

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This is the first of two groups of challenges against GCHQ’s interception and information sharing practices. The other is an appeal direct to the ECtHR (Big Brother Watch v United Kingdom), which the Strasbourg court has decided to fast track.

Today’s hearing was a directions hearing, which means that none of the substantive claims were argued, but questions as to approach were tackled and dates were set. The full hearing has been scheduled for 14-18 July this year – which is rather earlier than the ECtHR will hear their case, even though they’ve decided to fast track. The July hearing will be open to the public, although it sounds like there may also be sections of argument that are closed (more on that below).

dramatis personae

There are three separate groups of claimants: Amnesty International (represented by Kirsty Brimelow of Doughty Street Chambers), Privacy International and Bytes For All (Ben Jaffey of Blackstone Chambers) and Liberty and the ACLU (Matthew Ryder of Matrix Chambers). As far as I am aware, the only groups to have made their initial documentation public are Privacy International and Bytes for All. Privacy International’s claim deals with two main issues: the extent to which information sharing is regulated under RIPA (lets’s broadly call that issue PRISM) and the legality of mass surveillance (that’s Tempora).

The first issue dealt with was Amnesty joining the proceedings. Today’s hearing isn’t quite the first time Snowden’s revelations have been brought before the IPT (even in public). On 30 January, Abdel Hakim Belhaj and Fatima Boudchar were granted a limited injunction against the use of any legally privileged information that may have been acquired by surveillance (the court did not rule on whether any surveillance had in fact happened). The violation of legal privilege in breach of article 6 of the ECHR appears to be part of Amnesty’s argument in this case too, so there was some discussion as to what should be discussed purely in relation to the Belhaj case and what should be included in July’s hearing.

“This tribunal is unique in being able to proceed on assumed facts”

The bulk of the morning hearing saw attempts to reach agreement on the hypothetical premises on which the argument could proceed. Part of the difficulty here is that the UK government is still adopting a strict ‘neither confirm nor deny’ policy when it comes to Tempora – to the extent of not even being willing to confirm or deny how the word is pronounced.  It became evident over the course of the morning that the government would have preferred to restrict the court to an assessment of whether the RIPA framework itself was in accordance with ECHR rather than adjudicating whether particular alleged actions would be legal under RIPA itself or the Human Rights Act.

That approach was decisively rejected (“surely if you’re not allowed to do it at all, we can say so?”) so we will be hearing arguments about whether Tempora activity would be lawful – although the points at issue will be presented as “claimants allegations” rather than “agreed premises”.

In the absence of authoritative advice to the contrary, by the way, Mr Justice Burton decided that the IPT would go with the ‘Latin’ rather than ‘Japanese’ pronunciation of tempora. That means an emphasis on the first, rather than the second syllable.

Metadata and communications data

An interesting question that came up was whether communications data and metadata is synonymous – as it transpired, this was brought up by Matthew Ryder as a result of David Omand asserting that there was a difference (listen back to the LSE debate to hear for yourself). It seems that the government has responded to the effect that there is no meaningful difference between the two terms.

Afternoon

The afternoon session confirmed dates for the main hearing in July and then returned to the main theme of the morning, this time in detailed discussion about how the main issues of the case should be framed. Should the government be able to limit discussion to an assessment of the compatibility of its legal framework with the ECHR or should the question be whether the alleged practices themselves are compatible with the law? Is it possible the alleged practices might not be wholly authorised by RIPA, making the first option too narrow?

The argument on these issues was quite dense: at one point, it appeared as though the government was saying that, if the alleged activities took place, they could only have been authorised by RIPA, but that was not conceded formally. The final formulation is still to be confirmed, but it looks like it will represent a bit of a compromise for both sides.

Neither confirm nor deny

As mentioned earlier, the UK government will still neither confirm nor deny that the Tempora programme exists, despite the amount of information now in the public domain. (PRISM is a bit of a different matter, because its existence has already been acknowledged on the other side of the Atlantic). On the basis of some of Ben Jaffey’s submissions today, it looks like this stance will be challenged in July, particularly if – as seems likely – the government moves to hold a closed session after the open one.

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