Surveillance: RIPA and the Communications Data Bill

The Communications Data Bill, shelved amid political heavy weather, is back on the agenda in the wake of last week’s Woolwich murder. Today for example, Conservative MP and former policing minister Nick Herbert wrote an article in The Times in support of the Bill and responding to those who have called it a ‘snooper’s charter’.

One of the more detailed critiques of Mr Herbert’s article came from Big Brother Watch. Part of its argument was that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) already provides for necessary surveillance – indeed, RIPA goes further because, unlike the Communications Data Bill, it allows for the actual content of communications to be intercepted in appropriate circumstances

Big Brother Watch’s article noted, however, problems with the use of intercept evidence in criminal trials. As regards the admissibility of surveillance resulting in the recording of conversations however, a very recent Court of Appeal judgment brings good news.

Turner v R [2013] EWCA Crim 642 concerned an appeal against a murder conviction. The evidence included extracts from some 300 hours’ worth of conversations which had been recorded as part of an intrusive surveillance operation authorised under RIPA.

The single ground of appeal against conviction arose from the rejection by Dobbs J of the submission that the indictment should be stayed as an abuse of process arising from the use of intrusive covert surveillance in the appellant’s home; alternatively, that the evidence derived from that surveillance was unfairly admitted in evidence, when it should have been excluded under s.78 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.

The Court of Appeal dismissed these arguments. It had particular regard to the importance of respecting legal professional privilege when gathering evidence through covert means.

The Lord Chief Jusitce concluded that (paragraph 28):

“The surveillance was lawful. The relevant disclosure took place. The record of incriminating conversations was unchallenged. We understand that there may be extreme cases in which the prosecuting authorities (using the words in a comprehensive way) may interfere so significantly with the legal privilege of a defendant that the very integrity of the administration of justice may be undermined. That, however, did not happen here. Lawful covert surveillance produced damaging evidence against all three defendants. The process worked lawfully: any flaws were minor and short, and inconsequential”.

As to admissibility, he said this (paragraph 30):

“The only unfairness was that the appellant chose to say the things that he did because he did not realise that they were being recorded. The object of covert surveillance of the kind deployed in this case was to discover the truth, and, the evidence of what the appellant said about the death of the deceased was put before the jury while anything containing even a whisper of conversations protected by legal privilege was excluded. That was not unfair.”

Those arguing that RIPA is a fit-for-purpose surveillance tool will no doubt find support in this judgment.

Robin Hopkins