A group of women who were tricked into having sexual relationships by undercover police officers have won a partial legal victory to have their damages claims heard in open court.
The women say they were targeted by officers who specialised in infiltrating protest movements in a series of cases that stretch back to the late 1980s. They are suing the Metropolitan and South Wales police for emotional, psychiatric and financial damages.
Both forces wanted all the cases to be heard in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), a highly secretive court which usually deals with complaints against the security services and has been criticised as being overly opaque.
But today a High Court judge ruled that a number of civil claims must be heard in the public civil courts.
However Mr Justice Tugendhat also ruled that some of the more recent cases need to go through the IPT before they can be heard in the High Court.
The decision means that evidence relating to how the police managed Mark Kennedy, an undercover officer who was exposed in 2011 as a police source within environmental movements, is less likely to become public.
The outing of PC Kennedy as an undercover informant sent shock waves through the Met Police and led to the convictions of a number of environmental protesters being quashed. After years undercover he appeared to switch sides and offered to appear on behalf of the defence.
Another officer who is accused of having relationships with activists according to yesterday’s judgement is Mark Jacobs, an officer who infiltrated a group of Welsh anarchists.
Speaking at the High Court, Justice Tugendhat recognised that the allegations against the police were “very serious”.
“No action against the police alleging sexual abuse of the kind in question in these actions has been brought before the courts in the past, so far as I have been made aware,” he said.
He likened the cases to James Bond, the fictional security services operative who regularly “used relationships with women to obtain information, or access to persons or property”.
Although Ian Fleming, the writer of the Bond series, did not dwell on “psychological harm he might have done to the women concerned”, the judge said, his fictional accounts pointed to how “intelligence and police services have for many years deployed both men and women officers to form personal relationships of an intimate sexual nature”.
Lawyers for the 10 women – and one man who claims his girlfriend was seduced – say they want to expose what authorisation was given by senior officers to approve seduction as a legitimate information gathering technique. They are determined to avoid hearing the cases in the IPT because they claim their clients are unable to see or contest police evidence there.
The cases which have to go before the IPT concern allegations that occurred after 2000 when the Human Rights Act came into force. The judge ruled that the Human Rights Act claims have to go before the IPT.
The women’s lawyers said they would now consider whether to appeal the decision. A statement by the Met Police gave no indication whether they would also appeal.
Secret service: Tribunal powers
The Investigatory Powers Tribunal is one of the most secretive judicial bodies in the country. It is independent of the British government and is used to decide on complaints against surveillance by public bodies.
That means the tribunal can investigate anything from council snooping to national security spying – making it the only body which can investigate MI5, MI6 and GCHQ.
The tribunal was established in 2000 by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). Currently headed by the Court of Appeal judge Lord Justice Mummery, it has been criticised for being highly secretive. It is expect from freedom of information requests, it holds most of its hearings in private, there is no obligation to take oral evidence and many of the final judgements are not published.
Those submitting claims against surveillance have complained that they are usually unable to contest the evidence against them because they cannot see it. It also rarely finds in favour of claimants. Between 2000 and 2010 of the complaints we know about only ten were upheld out of 1120.