Campaigners have won a huge victory against the Government, after the High Court ruled that the data laws that regulate how police and spooks spy on citizens were unlawful. But the ruling gives the Government until March to fix the broken law — by which time it hopes to have introduced yet more far-reaching legislation.
Two MPs and other campaigners won a ruling from two judges in London that the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (Dripa) is "inconsistent with EU law".
The decision was a victory for Conservative former shadow home secretary David Davis and Labour backbencher Tom Watson who brought the legal challenge with members of the public.
Campaigners argued that there wasn't enough safeguards to ensure that the interception of communications data — text messages, browsing history, Facebook chats and more — was not limited to cases about serious crime. It also said that the rules allowed people to keep data use secret and complained that it allowed spies to hack into the communications of anyone, including journalists or whistleblowers.
They say they are concerned to protect the confidentiality of their contacts with constituents and other members of the public - including whistleblowers - who might approach them with sensitive information.
The judges said that the first section of Dripa "does not lay down clear and precise rules providing for access to and use of communications data" and should be "disapplied".
But the judges said their order on disapplication should be suspended until after March 31 2016 "to give Parliament the opportunity to put matters right".
Their case is backed by the human rights pressure group Liberty.
Liberty's legal director James Welch said: "Campaigners, MPs across the political spectrum, the Government's own reviewer of terrorism legislation are all calling for judicial oversight and clearer safeguards.
"The High Court has now added its voice, ruling key provisions of Dripa unlawful. Now is the time for the Home Secretary to commit publicly to surveillance conducted with proper respect for privacy, democracy and the rule of law - not plough on with more of the same."
But the high court ruling is only the latest in a series of high-profile, expert criticisms of the way that spying is regulated. After each of those recent criticisms — including detailed Government-commissioned reports — Theresa May and colleagues have vowed to push on with plans to increase spying powers.
But David Davis said that the new ruling could signal a change: "They will now have to rewrite the law to require judicial or independent approval before accessing innocent people's data, reflecting the new consensus amongst experts in the Anderson and Rusi reports.
“This change will improve both privacy and security, as whilst the Government gave Parliament one day to consider its law, the court has given almost nine months."
The judges declared the legislation "does not lay down clear and precise rules providing for access to and use of communications data retained pursuant to a retention notice to be strictly restricted to the purpose of preventing and detecting precisely defined serious offences, or of conducting criminal prosecutions relating to such offences".
The data laws were also flawed because "access to the data is not made dependent on a prior review by a court or an independent administrative body whose decision limits access to and use of the data to what is strictly necessary for the purpose of attaining the objective pursued".
The judges ordered that Section 1 of Dripa should be disapplied "in so far as access to and use of communications data retained pursuant to a retention notice is permitted for purposes other than the prevention and detection of serious offences, or the conduct of criminal proceedings" in circumstances where there was no prior review by a court or independent body.
Additional reporting by Press Association
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