Concerns over protection of professional communications

Concerns over protection of professional communications

In an unprecedented alliance, the Law Society, Bar Council, British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and National Union of Journalists (NUJ) have combined forces as the Professionals for Information Privacy Coalition to raise concerns as to the current proposals contained in the draft code of practice for the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).

Their joint statement is as follows:

Statement by Professionals for Information Privacy coalition

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 (see note ii) and it has also been revealed that the intelligence agencies have been spying on conversations between lawyers and their clients.

The existing data and surveillance rules are complex and confusing and have been laid down in numerous, badly drafted pieces of legislation, codes and guidance. Too many laws have been rushed through parliament as emergency legislation – most recently the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 (DRIPA). This has undermined parliamentary scrutiny and democratic debate. So we have come together to call for the existing problems to be addressed in the various reviews still underway.

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.

We are urging all parliamentarians and the government to support a new approach that includes bringing forward new primary legislation in order to clearly and transparently codify data and surveillance policy in the public interest.

Alistair MacDonald QC, chairman of the Bar Council, 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.’

Andrew Caplen, president of the Law Society, said: ‘Legal advice oils the wheels of commerce and helps to protect the innocent in complex rule-based societies. The rule of law and the administration of justice are undermined if individuals cannot place absolute trust in their legal advisers.’

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, 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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