Section 44 - 12 years on

20 July 2012
Corinna Ferguson, Legal Officer

During the last decade or so the UK has been the stage for a legislation extravaganza in the name of counter-terrorism and national security. Such laws, often hastily passed and draconian in nature, have been the source of much debate. Twelve years ago today Parliament passed the first in this controversial series of statutes – the Terrorism Act 2000.

The legislation made permanent a number of drastic measures previously subject to annual review. It extended the police’s powers to arrest and detain and created several new criminal offences. Its definition of “terrorism” was also incredibly broad; incorporating activity falling well outside of the traditional meaning.

Of all the Act’s provisions section 44 was amongst its most contentious. It gave police exceptional powers to stop and search anyone, at random, in a specified area. There was no requirement for any suspicion. The areas were designated by an assistant chief constable and then confirmed by the Home Secretary. Orders could be made at any time, could last for 28 days and were renewable.

The power was so widely drawn that authorisations became routine. For almost 10 years after section 44’s introduction the whole of Greater London was designated as an area where anyone could be stopped and searched without suspicion.

Unsurprisingly it was peaceful protesters rather than terrorists who were targeted. If you were black or Asian you were between five and seven times more likely to be stopped than if you were white. Of the thousands of people stopped and searched, to our knowledge no-one was ever convicted of a terrorism offence.

Thankfully the European Court of Human Rights saw section 44 for what it was. In early 2010 Liberty won a landmark legal case, Gillan and Quinton v UK, which ruled that the power violated Article 8, the right to respect for private life. Following that judgment the Government suspended section 44 and later repealed it as part of a wider counter-terrorism review.

Section 44 alienated more people than it ever protected. It was used against schoolchildren, journalists and a disproportionate number of young black men. No-one underestimates the threat of terrorism, but such consequences are precisely those that violent extremism seeks to bring about in the first place. Terrorism is not the only threat to the Rule of Law – ill-conceived legislation like this carries with it similar dangers.