Lawyers and social workers join forces with journalists to call for curb on police spying powers

Lawyers’ groups and social workers have joined forces with the National Union of Journalists to call for new curbs on police spying powers.

The Law Society, Bar Council, The British Association of Social Workers and NUJ have come together as the Professionals for Information Privacy Coalition to express concerns about the guidelines which allow police to secretly view anyone’s phone records.

They have come together to issue a joint response to the new consultation on a new Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act code of practice to govern how law enforcement agencies acquire telecoms data.

In a joint statement they said: “Privacy and trust is crucially important to the British public and our professions. We need to be assured that certain data will always remain confidential in all but exceptional and extreme circumstances.

“Insufficient regard for professional confidentiality undermines the public’s trust in our individual members, organisations and our public institutions.

“We are united in our belief that the current system needs to be changed.

“We have seen a growing number of instances where data and surveillance powers have been seriously and repeatedly overused. This has included police using secret methods to expose journalistic sources and to monitor journalists' activities and it has also been revealed that the intelligence agencies have been spying on conversations between lawyers and their client.  

“Our organisations agree that access to professional data should be protected in law and should be subject to independent, judicial oversight. Using codes of practice – such as the draft code under RIPA – undermines the rule of law.”

Chairman of the Bar Council Alistair MacDonald said: “As a caring society, we cannot simply leave surveillance issues to senior officers of the police and the security services acting purportedly under mere codes of practice. What is surely needed more than ever before is a rigorous statutory framework under which surveillance is authorised and conducted.

“For example, communications between lawyers and their clients should remain confidential. If the state eavesdrops on privileged communications to gather intelligence, clients will feel unable to speak openly with their lawyers. In many cases, the effect will be that such cases cannot properly be put and a just result will not be achieved.”

NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: "This coalition clearly demonstrates the strength of feeling amongst media and legal professionals and our overwhelming determination to see this law changed.

"It is clear that there has been sustained and deliberate surveillance of journalists, compromising confidential sources in unprecedented levels. The proposals contained in the existing RIPA code of practice simply do not offer the protection to journalists and to sources, and are in fact dangerously inadequate.

"New legislation is urgently needed – it is vital that judicial oversight is introduced to force police officers and other snoopers to apply to judges in a transparent process before surveillance powers against media and legal professionals can be considered.

"We hope the government will now listen to the wide breadth of professional opinion calling for reform of this dangerous law."

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