The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) has featured prominently in the news in recent weeks, both as regards undercover police officers/“covert human intelligence sources” and as regards the phone-hacking scandal.
This morning, the Court of Appeal gave judgment in Edmonson, Weatherup, Brooks, Coulson & Kuttner v R  EWCA Crim 1026. As is well known, the appellants face charges arising out of the News of the World phone-hacking controversy – specifically, conspiring unlawfully to intercept communications in the course of their transmission without lawful authority contrary to section 1(1) of the Criminal Law Act 1977.
The communications in question are voicemails. Under section 1(1)(b) of RIPA, it is an offence intentionally to intercept, without lawful authority, any communication in the course of its transmission by means of a public telecommunications system (my emphasis). The central provision is section 2(7) of RIPA:
“(7) For the purposes of this section the times while a communication is being transmitted by means of a telecommunication system shall be taken to include any time when the system by means of which the communication is being, or has been, transmitted is used for storing it in a manner that enables the intended recipient to collect it or otherwise to have access to it.”
The appellants applied to have the charges dismissed on the grounds that the words “in the course of transmission” in section 1(1) of RIPA do not extend to voicemail messages once they have been listened to (by the intended recipient, that is, rather than by any alleged phone-hacker). They argued that the ordinary meaning of “transmission” is conveyance from one person or place to another and that section 2(7) is intended to extend the concept of “transmission” only so as to cover periods of transient storage that arising through modern phone and email usage, and when the intended recipient is not immediately available. Thus, once the message has been listened to, it can no longer be “in the course of transmission”.
The point had previously been decided against the appellant. The Court of Appeal (the Lord Chief Justice, Lloyd Jones LJ, Openshaw J) took a similar view. While it accepted that the application of section 2(7) may differ as between, for example, voicemails and emails, “there is nothing in the language of the statute to indicate that section 2(7) should be read in such a limited way” (as the appellants had contended) (paragraph 23). Further, the words “has been transmitted” in section 2(7) “make entirely clear that the course of transmission may continue notwithstanding that the voicemail message has already been received and read by the intended recipient” (paragraph 26).
The same conclusion was reached by focusing on the mischief which section 2(7) is intended to remedy, “namely unauthorized access to communications, whether oral or text, whilst they remain on the system by which they were transmitted. As the prosecution submits, unlawful access and intrusion is not somehow less objectionable because the message has been read or listened to by the intended recipient before the unauthorized access takes place” (paragraph 28, quoting an earlier judgment in this matter from Fulford LJ).
The Court accepted that section 2(7) went further than the prohibitions imposed by Directive 97/66/EC concerning the processing of personal data and the protection of privacy in the telecommunications sector (which RIPA sought to implement) and its successor, Directive 2002/58/EC concerning the processing of personal data and the protection of privacy in the electronic communications sector (which postdates RIPA). The Court found, however, that the Directives imposed minimum harmonisation; Parliament was entitled to go further and to set higher standards for the protection of privacy of electronic communications, provided that those additional obligations are compatible with EU law (paragraph 42).
Both the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Computer Misuse Act 1990 also raised their heads. The DPA, for example, contains a public interest defence which is not available under RIPA. It was argued that this risked creation parallel offences without parallel defences, violating the principle of legal certainty. This submission too was rejected (paragraphs 44-45).
The cases will now proceed to trial, apparently to commence in September.
As regards the activities of undercover police officers, the major issue this week has concerned the alleged smearing of the family and friends of Stephen Lawrence: see for example The Guardian’s Q&A session with undercover-officer-turned-whistleblower Peter Francis.
The other major ongoing case regarding a former undercover officer concerns Mark Kennedy, who (together with others) infiltrated political and environmental activists over a period of years. Claims were commenced in the High Court, with part of the conduct complained of involving ensuing sexual relations between activists/their partners and undercover officers.
Earlier this year, J and others v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis  EWHC 32 (QB) saw part of the claims struck out. The Court held that the Investigatory Powers Tribunal had exclusive jurisdiction over the claims under the Human Rights Act 1998; it struck out these parts accordingly. It observed that conduct breaching Article 3 (inhuman and degrading treatment) – which included the claims relating to sexual activity – could not be authorised under RIPA, but conduct breaching Article 8 (privacy) could be authorised. Sexual activity with undercover officers did not necessarily engage Article 3.
Those parts of the claims which did not concern the Human Rights Act 1998 (actions at common law and for alleged breaches of statutory duties) were not exclusively within the Investigatory Powers Tribunal’s jurisdiction and were thus not struck out as an abuse of process, notwithstanding the police’s difficulties in presenting its case due to the ‘neither confirm nor deny’ approach to covert sources.
Unlike with the phone-hacking cases, it is not clear when this case will resume before the Court/Tribunal.