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Snoopers' Charter is a 'rush job', says Bar

IP Bill could be used to listen in on legal advice for disputes against the government

2 March 2016

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The government's newly published Investigatory Powers (IP) Bill will allow authorities total access to confidential, legally privileged communications, despite claims the surveillance law would contain 'protections for lawyers'.

Dubbed the 'Snoopers' Charter' by critics, a cross-party parliamentary committee explicitly recommended statutory protection for legal privilege in the IP Bill in early February. This followed further criticism from two other parliamentary groups, the Intelligence and Security Committee and the Science and Technology Committee.

MPs advised of 123 changes to what human rights campaigners argue is a majorly flawed Bill.

The powers contained within the 243-page Bill have been described as too broad, with too few safeguards, and crucial investigatory powers missing entirely.

In a statement to parliament, the home secretary, Theresa May, said the government had considered the criticisms of the three committees.

'The privacy safeguards are stronger and clearer,' she said. 'The bill incorporates additional protections for journalists, removing a key exemption for the security and intelligence agencies when seeking to identify journalists' sources. And it incorporates statutory protections for lawyers.'

However, the Bar Council has been quick to dismiss the government's promises, instead arguing that it has failed to adequately draft safeguards into the proposed law to protect client confidentiality.

Commenting on the Bill's far-reaching implications, the chairman of the Bar, Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, said that weakening the principle of legal privilege jeopardised the fairness of the trial process.

'The Bar Council is disappointed that the Bill introduced to parliament does not provide sufficient protection for legal privilege on the face of the Bill,' she said.

'It is vital that this measure is subject to proper parliamentary scrutiny to ensure that the interests of justice and security are kept in balance.'

Peter Carter QC, chair of the Bar Council's surveillance and privacy working group, who gave evidence to the joint scrutiny committee for the Bar Council, argued that giving the security services more powers than necessary to protect the public would diminish the justice system.

'This Bill ignores the clear distinction between privileged and non-privileged communications and instead gives authorities powers to spy on sensitive, highly confidential communications that have nothing to do with criminality, national security or threats to individuals,' he remarked.

'The Bill undermines the right to a fair trial because barristers will no longer be able to reassure clients that their communications, which the public interest demands should be immune from state intrusion, are in fact private and confidential.'

As an example, Carter suggested the Bill could be used by authorities to listen in on advice to litigants who are in the middle of a legal dispute against the government.

'This Bill is a rush job that will undermine one of our most fundamental rights,' continued Carter. 'We hope that the government will extend the timetable of the Bill and give full and proper consideration to Bar Council amendments which adequately would protect legal privilege without restricting the work of the security services.'

The government is determined to push ahead with the controversial law and have it passed before the sunset clause of the existing surveillance law, DRIPA, expires in December.

Campaign group Liberty has co-signed a letter in the Telegraph alongside more than 100 politicians, campaigners, legal experts, and academics urging the government to rethink the legislation and give it the time and scrutiny it deserves.

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