On the 12th of January, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in the case of Gillan and Quinton v. the United Kingdom, that UK police powers to randomly stop and search people under Sections 44-47 of The Terrorism Act (2000) were unlawful. This is the third recent ruling by the ECHR against the current direction of the UK’s security policies (after the ruling in S. and Marper v. the UK, against the police retaining DNA profiles and fingerprints from people not convicted of any offence). It also follows the furore over the London Metropolitan Police’s interpretation of Sections 43, 44 and 58s of The Terrorism Act in relation to public photography.* The case was brought by two people, Pennie Quinton a journalist who was on her way to cover a demonstration against an arms fair in London in September 2003,, and Kevin Gillan, who was cycling past.
Section 44 allows the police to stop and search anyone on the basis of a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that they may be in posssession of information or items that may be useful in committing an act of terrorism. The case in the ECHR was on several principles, most of which were rejected, but most importantly the Court found that arbitrary stop and search dis violate Article 8 of the European Convention, on the right to privacy. This was because “the use of the coercive powers conferred by the legislation to require an individual to submit to a detailed search of his person, his clothing and his personal belongings amounts to a clear interference with the right to respect for private life”.
Furthermore the UK government once again argued, as it did equally unsuccessfully in the case of Peck v. UK back in 2003, that Article 8 did not apply as there was no right privacy in public places. This argument, the Court not only rejected but actually argued that the publicness of the stop and search made the violation of privacy worse:
“Although the search is undertaken in a public place, this does not mean that Article 8 is inapplicable. Indeed, in the Court’s view, the public nature of the search may, in certain cases, compound the seriousness of the interference because of an element of humiliation and embarrassment. Items such as bags, wallets, notebooks and diaries may, moreover, contain personal information which the owner may feel uncomfortable about having exposed to the view of his companions or the wider public.”
This was a well-thought out ruling which made the arguments pretty clear. However the response of the UK government, as in the DNA case, leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, it has basically said, “make me”! The government intends to ignore the ruling in everyday practice, as it did with Peck, and will continue to allow police to carry out such searches whilst it appeals the case. This also means that there will be no disciplinary action against any officer who follows this policy, despite its now being unlawful.
*This of course is by no means over either, and there will be a mass photography action, “I’m a Photographer Not a Terrorist!”, on January 23rd at 12 Noon, Trafalgar Square in London.