Police stop and search powers ruled illegal

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The Independent Online

Police stop and search powers under UK terrorism laws were declared illegal by human rights judges today.

The right to question people without grounds for suspicion - granted by the Terrorism Act of 2000 - violates the Human Rights Convention, said the European Court of Human Rights.

The ruling came in a case brought by two Londoners who were stopped and questioned by police near an arms fair in the city in 2003.

Kevin Gillan and Pennie Quinton were both searched on the same day in the area of the Defence Systems and Equipment International Exhibition at the Excel Centre in Docklands, where there had already been protests and demonstrations.

Nothing incriminating was found on either of them and they went to court questioning the legality of stop and search powers.

The High Court and the Court of Appeal said the powers were legitimate given the risk of terrorism in London.

But the human rights court disagreed.

The judgment said: "The (human rights) court considers that the powers of authorisation and confirmation as well as those of stop and search under sections 44 and 45 of the 2000 Act are neither sufficiently circumscribed nor subject to adequate legal safeguards against abuse.

"They are not, therefore, 'in accordance with the law' and it follows that there has been a violation of Article 8 of the Convention."

Article 8 says "everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life".

It adds: "There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security... or the prevention of disorder or crime... or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others."

Today the human rights judges said that, although Mr Gillan and Ms Quinton were each stopped and searched for less than 30 minutes, they were "entirely deprived of any freedom of movement" for the duration.

The judgment said: "They were obliged to remain where they were and submit to the search and if they had refused they would have been liable to arrest, detention at a police station and criminal charges. This element of coercion is indicative of a deprivation of liberty."

The pair involved in the case are white, but the judges issued a warning that the scope of the stop and search law could have serious implications for discrimination.

"There is a clear risk of arbitrariness in the grant of such a broad discretion to the police officer. While the present cases do not concern black applicants or those of Asian origin, the risks of the discriminatory use of the powers against such persons is a very real consideration.

"The available statistics show that black and Asian persons are disproportionately affected by the powers, although... there has also been a practice of stopping and searching white people purely to produce greater racial balance in the statistics."

Mr Gillan and Miss Quinton were awarded more than £30,000 compensation between them.

He was on his way to join a demonstration when he was stopped near the arms fair while riding a bike and carrying a rucksack.

Mr Gillan was told by two police officers that he was being searched under section 44 of the Terrorism Act for articles which could be used in connection with terrorism.

Nothing incriminating was found, although computer printouts giving information about the demonstration were seized by the officers. He was released after being detained for about 20 minutes.

Later that day Miss Quinton, a journalist wearing a photographer's jacket, carrying a small bag and holding a camera in her hand, was stopped close to the arms fair.

She was said to have emerged from some bushes and was planning to film the protests. She was searched and told to stop filming. Nothing incriminating was found.

The police record of the search showed she was stopped for five minutes, but Miss Quinton said she thought it was "more like 30 minutes". She claimed to have felt so intimidated and distressed that she did not feel able to return to the demonstration although it had been her intention to make a documentary or sell footage of it.

Mr Gillan welcomed the verdict: "It's fantastic news after a long struggle. I look to the Government for a strong response."

Ms Quinton said: "There has to be a balance between private life and security. The court has shown that section 44 is an invasion of people's right to liberty and privacy."

Corinna Ferguson, legal officer for campaigning group Liberty, which supported the court action, said: "Liberty has consistently warned the Government about the dangers of stop and search without suspicion and actively campaigned for the tightening up of the infamous section 44 power.

"The public, police and Court of Human Rights all share our concerns for privacy, protest, race equality and community solidarity that come with this sloppy law. In the coming weeks, parliamentarians must finally sort out this mess."

Liberty says power to stop and search without suspicion has been frequently been used against peaceful protesters - including elderly holocaust survivor Walter Wolfgang, who was thrown out of the Labour Party conference in 2005 after heckling the then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

"The statistics on the use of this power demonstrate as few as 0.6% of stop and searches in 2007-08 resulted in an arrest and that if you are black or Asian you are between five and seven times more likely to be stopped under section 44," said a Liberty statement.

The independent reviewer of anti-terrorism legislation, Lord Carlile, said the judgment could have "quite serious" implications and may require parts of the Terrorism Act 2000 to be rewritten.

Lord Carlile has repeatedly argued that police forces are making too much use of their power to stop and search under the act.

He told BBC Radio 4's The World At One today: "As independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, I have reported repeatedly that it should be used much less. I have said year on year that its use could be reduced by 50% without damaging national security, and I remain of that view."

The Home Office said it was disappointed with the judgment and would appeal against the court's ruling.

Policing and Security Minister David Hanson said: "Stop and search under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 is an important tool in a package of measures in the ongoing fight against terrorism.

"I am disappointed with the ECHR ruling in this case as we won all other challenges in the UK courts, including at the House of Lords.

"We are considering the judgment and will seek to appeal."

Alex Deane, director of campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: "Today is a great day for freedom in Britain. Random stop and search powers were a shocking abuse of our historic, hard-won liberties.

"The fact remains that no successful prosecutions for terrorism offences ever resulted from these draconian stop and search powers.

"However, what this tremendous judgment cannot undo is the embarrassment and anguish felt by the many people abused for no good reason under this now unlawful power."

The verdict was hailed as a "great day for freedom in Britain" by Big Brother Watch.

The privacy campaign group's director, Alex Deane, went on: "Random stop and search powers were a shocking abuse of our historic, hard-won liberties. The fact remains that no successful prosecutions for terrorism offences ever resulted from these draconian stop and search powers.

"However, what this tremendous judgment cannot undo is the embarrassment and anguish felt by the many people abused for no good reason under this now unlawful power."

Halya Gowan, Amnesty International's Europe programme director, said the powers should be scrapped.

She said: "These police powers to stop and search under the Terrorism Act clearly violate people's right to privacy and family life and the Government must act urgently to scrap them.

"They also contravene the rights to liberty, freedom of expression and assembly, and freedom from arbitrary detention, all of which the UK is bound to uphold."

Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling said: "We have long said that anti-terror laws should not be used as a way of conducting normal day-to-day policing. The Government needs to make sure that the police have the appropriate powers to deal with crime and anti-social behaviour."