European court in Strasbourg rules UK's Terrorism Act in breach of human rights law

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

An international court in Strasbourg issued a ruling yesterday that powers allowing UK police to stop and search anyone without reason are in breach of European law. The European Court of Human Rights deemed powers contained in the Terrorism Act 2000 denied the human right of privacy.

Under the European Convention of Human Rights people in the UK are granted the right to privacy, although their government felt that the threat of terrorism meant that the breach of this was justifiable and allowable under exemptions in the Convention. Previously, the powers have been unsuccessfully challenged before the English and Welsh High Court, upheld by those nations' Court of Appeals and finally upheld again before the UK's House of Lords.

Section 44 of the Terrorism Act allows the Home Secretary to designate an area for use of the powers for a certain period. If this period was more than a month then at the end of the month then the Home Secretary can renew them. The entirety of Greater London has spent several years with the powers in effect. Under the Act, the police do not need to have any reason to search whoever they like and have the power to confiscate articles they believe to be of use to terrorists. They can also make arrests if these are found.

Yesterday's ruling was made in a case brought by Kevin Gillan and Pennie Quinton, both stopped outside a military exhibition in London's Docklands area. Gillan was stopped while cycling past and kept there for twenty minutes while journalist Quinton was ordered to stop filming even after showing her press card. She claims to have been detained for roughly thirty minutes at the scene, while police claim she was there for five minutes. The court awarded 33,850 (£30,400) to cover the costs incurred by bringing the case.

UK Home Secretary Alan Johnson expressed disappointment at the ruling and stated that an appeal will be launched. Chief Constable Craig Mackey of the Association of Chief Police Officers said that while this appeal was pending Section 44 of the Act would continue to be used by police.

The court found that the humiliation and embarrassment of searching people in public was a clear breach of privacy as well as criticising that the way power was authorised did not require a test that its use be "necessary," merely "expedient." The court singled out London's designation under the Act as an area where the powers could be used continuously since it became law as an example of why this was not appropriate.

Further criticism in the ruling was aimed at the idea that the decision to search could be "based exclusively on the 'hunch' or 'professional intuition' of the police officer". The judgement added that "the absence of any obligation on the part of the officer to show a reasonable suspicion made it almost impossible to prove that the power had been improperly exercised," with no judicial oversight. Racism was a further concern, with the court expressing a fear that the powers could easily be used in a discrimminatory manner. Four times as many blacks and Asians have been searched compared to whites.