Constitutional law

A general view of New Scotland Yard on October 2, 2008 (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

  © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The news that the UK’s Metropolitan Police had obtained the “telecommunications data” of a journalist so as to identify his confidential source has significant implications for criminal and civil lawyers — and also for their clients.

What the Met did was simple: they merely completed a request form under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) and sent it to the journalist’s mobile telephone service provider. As long as the RIPA request is approved by the appropriate senior police officer, the telephone company provides the requested information by return. This information is not the actual content of a call or voicemail — that would (or should) require an intercept warrant — but all the accompanying “metadata” (a list of calls to and from the mobile, their duration and times, and even the geographic location of the mobile during the call) as well as subscriber information.

For the police, asking for this telecommunications data is routine. Every year the police and other public authorities make about half a million RIPA requests. None of these requests need a warrant, and none need consent. Indeed, the subscriber is not even told the request has been made. All this information is provided silently and easily to the police force or other public body making the request. There are no real safeguards against abuse.

So, if the police can casually use RIPA to obtain the telecommunications data of the political editor of the Sun newspaper, is there any limit on who else they would seek this data on? And even if there was such a limit, how would anyone know that it was not being respected? 

The UK’s Metropolitan Police obtained the “telecommunications data” of the political editor of the Sun. They did this without his consent, and possibly even without his knowledge. They also did this without any warrant or other court order. And this intrusion has caused a media sensation.

The revelation was buried in the “Operation Alice” report of the Metropolitan Police into the so-called “Plebgate” affair about what was said (and not said) by the then chief whip of the government, Andrew Mitchell, at the gates of Downing Street in September 2012. This incident led to a senior ministerial resignation, and to four police officers losing their jobs with one also being prosecuted. There are accusations and counter-accusations, and an ongoing libel case. The published report set out part of the Metropolitan Police’s own investigation; on whether Mr Mitchell called the police “plebs” the report is inconclusive.

But deep in the report, comprising paragraph 5.120, is this short and, for many, worrying sentence:

The telecommunications data in respect of Tom Newton Dunn was applied for and evidenced.

What the Metropolitan Police appear to have done was to issue a “RIPA request” (under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000) to Mr Newton Dunn’s mobile telephone company for “telecommunications data”. This is not the same as obtaining “intercept” evidence of live calls and voicemails – that would need a warrant. Instead the request would have been for the accompanying data which would be held by the telecommunications provider: the relevant numbers and other details of incoming and outgoing calls, their duration, their times — even the geographical location of the mobile telephone when the calls were received or made. As one can imagine, with this amount of data, obtaining an intercept of the actual content of the calls becomes less important. 

The UK government is pushing through emergency legislation.

The Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill was published yesterday, and the intention is that it will be an Act of Parliament by the end of next week. A legislative process which usually takes up a year will be truncated into seven days. This is law-making in a hurry. 

What would be better than this sentimentality about a thirteenth century manuscript would be for the UK to have proper constitutional guarantees: to make it possible for a defendant to rely on his or her fundamental rights in practical case, and to make it impossible for parliament and the executive to violate these rights. But this would mean that the UK would at last have a mature approach to constitutional rights. 

Last weekend the Sunday Mirror reported, almost in passing, that Chris Grayling may be sacked from the UK cabinet:

So Justice Secretary Chris Grayling is expected to get the chop and be replaced by Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers.

This would be welcome news. Mr Grayling has not been a success as justice secretary and lord chancellor, in respect of either policy making or political leadership. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a worse ministerial performance. 

Very few citizens of the UK appear to have any great interest in constitutional affairs. And, other than those with a passion for devolution of its constituent nations, there are probably a few hundred people who ever give constitutional reform any serious thought.

Many do not even believe that there is even a constitution in place; such things are instead what foreign folk have to cause themselves needless difficulties. A sincere concern with constitutional affairs seems the preserve of the Tory fogey or the academic radical, but is not the stuff of serious politics.