State sanctioned abuse

Posted by Emma Norton on 18 January 2013

Yesterday in the High Court some extraordinarily brave women were told that their human rights claims against the Metropolitan Police will have to be heard in the secretive Investigatory Powers Tribunal. These women were all the subject of undercover policing that involved sexual encounters with police officers - in many cases these encounters became long term intimate relationships. The exposure of this police tactic has caused enormous embarrassment to the Met - hence their eagerness to have the claims heard in secret, without the women being allowed to hear the evidence and without a right of appeal. Thankfully the High Court yesterday ordered that other important parts of the claims could remain in the open High Court.

This push towards greater secrecy in court proceedings is painfully familiar. The Justice and Security Bill, currently making its way through the House of Commons, would allow the Government to give its evidence behind closed doors - even in the High Court - with claimants, their lawyers and the public shut out. Cases like this show that this Bill’s potential for cover-up extends much further than cases about the security services. Scandals involving shocking abuses of police power are likely to be pushed further into the shadows if the Bill is passed.

In November last year Radio 4 broadcast a series of interviews with some of the women involved. It is important that these voices are listened to. You only need to hear some of the stories to appreciate how terribly damaging these experiences have been. They explained that they had shared the most intimate aspects of their lives with these undercover officers, inviting them into their homes and families. In several cases, long term plans had been made and in one case a child was born.

Undercover policing is vital and necessary. We accept that it is no easy task. But to deliberately form and maintain the kinds of intimate relationships that we now know were created has produced nothing but harm and dangerous distrust. It has also cost a vast amount of public money and, worst of all, it has caused enormous damage to the women concerned.

There has rightly been public outrage at the intrusive phone hacking behaviour of certain newspapers. But this conduct is even more intrusive and it is being sanctioned by the state. The official response so far has been woeful; piecemeal, limited inquiries and a resistance to the scrutiny and reform that is badly required. At the very least there must be robust guidelines governing the conduct of undercover operatives that respect human rights. As Liberty has long argued, it is also time for state agents embarking on James Bond style infiltration operations to be required to obtain prior judicial authorisation. Independent checks and balances and the enforcement of human rights standards are surely the best way to avoid a repetition of this damaging ordeal.

Emma Norton

Emma Norton

Head of Legal Casework