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Anderson and surveillance: RIPA is still the law – and it’s being broken

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The Anderson report on surveillance has (according to the media) suggested that UK security services should “keep” their powers of bulk surveillance – the downloading and storing of communications and internet material, basically without limit except the limitations of the technology they have. The report has come out in the same week that the Metropolitan Police were unable to confirm or deny (for which read “confirmed”) that dummy mobile phone towers, or Stingers, were lifting material from the phones of passers-by, apparently ad hoc and without specific investigatory purpose.

But it is really not clear that bulk surveillance powers do have legal sanction in Britain – and nor does Anderson say unequivocally that they do. Which is why, when Theresa May’s new “snooper’s charter” legislation comes through, she will be legalising something she claims is perfectly legal already – but really isn’t.

So what is the law? The key piece of legislation is the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) – which Anderson wants replaced. This is often referred to as source of surveillance powers for just about anyone from GCHQ to schools checking on the residency of parents of local authorities looking at our recyling. In fact it is intended to control, curb, restrict and limit surveillance – and in particular it is intended to prevent the state’s (and private bodies’) disproportionate bulk downloading and retention of the private information – which is just what the security forces do now as far as they technically can and which they will be able to do far more effectively under the snooper’s charter, requiring ISPs, Google and the rest to keep such information for them. Read the rest of this entry

Housing associations: right to buy versus right to property

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Fast forward five years. A new leftist government is elected in Britain (majority 12) with a flagship policy to extend home ownership to “Generation Rent”. Legislation is drawn up to force private landlords to sell their properties at a discount to their tenants under a radical right to buy scheme. Unfortunately there is a stumbling block. One of the few human rights still standing amid the ruins of the old human rights regime following the Human Rights (Abolition of Trivial Provisions) Amendment Act 2017 is the right to property. Forcing owners of property to sell thei property offends against Part 1 Chapter 1 Article 1(1) of the new British Bill of Rights which says:

“Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions. No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law.”

Fortunately, though, there is a precedent. Backtrack five years and the Conservative Government of 2015 had just such a radical policy of redistribution of property. It similarly forced property owners to sell homes to their tenants at a discount of 35% or more – caring not whether those property owners were driven to bankruptcy as a result. The fact that the property owners are housing associations doesn’t mean they don’t have human rights: they are private bodies (hence “legal persons”) and the flats they let out are their private property. The wording quoted above is that of Article 1 Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which applies now and which the Tories have no known plans to repeal – because the human right to property is one of the “important” human rights they set great store by. Read the rest of this entry

Nzolameso and housing policy: Milton Keynes should not be the only option

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Once upon a time local councils could offer homeless people damp, mice-infested 28th-story flats on sink estates to discharge their responsibilities under the Housing Act 1996. Now they simply threaten to send them to Milton Keynes. But one cannot help thinking the UK Supreme Court has left the policy of “out-of-borough” placements (or “social cleansing” as even Boris Johnson acknowledged it to be) in disarray. The ruling in Nzolameso v City of Westminster means it will be very difficult for local authorities to justify sending people in housing need very far away for accommodation.

The legislation is pretty clear and explained in this 2006 Homelessness Code of Guidance: “Housing authorities must ensure that suitable accommodation is available for people who have priority need, if they are eligible for assistance and unintentionally homeless.” As a single mother of five children who was HIV positive and suffered other health issues, Titina Nzolameso was accepted by Westminster Council as being in priority need. The Council therefore had a duty to house her (known as the “main homelessness duty”). Whether shipping her out to a house in Bletchley, in Milton Keynes, was suitable is another matter. Nevertheless officials felt able to write to her:

“There is a severe shortage of accommodation in Westminster and it is not reasonably practicable for us to offer a Westminster home for everyone who applies for one. That is why we have had to offer you accommodation in Milton Keynes. Although it is outside Westminster, having considered your circumstances, we believe this accommodation is suitable for you.”

She turned the accommodation down as being too far from people helping her with her children and because she wanted to stay with her GP, also because it would mean changing her children’s schools and she had lived in Westminster for a long time. From December 2008 to November 2012, the family had lived in a privately rented four bedroom house in Westminster – until a cap on housing benefit kicked in and she was kicked out,  unable to afford the rent. Under the local housing allowance system rates of housing benefit for private tenants are calculated for each locality. The Westminster limit fell well below Nzolameso’s rent. Read the rest of this entry

Judge criticises Tower Hamlets over ‘Islamic State’ girls

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A judge has criticised Tower Hamlets council for misleading the High Court in its attempts to stop several girls fleeing Britain to join Islamic State (Isis). In comments unreported by the press Mr Justice Hayden, in the Family Division, said the police had been wrong-footed by the council’s court proceedings and Tower Hamlets “consciously misrepresented the extent of the police awareness of this application”.

Hayden had made the five girls wards of court, which meant they would have to seek permission of the court before going abroad. Tower Hamlets then successfully applied for an order to confiscate their passports, “a very significant incursion into the individual’s freedom and personal autonomy”, according to Hayden. Council officers had claimed the police had agreed this was the way to proceed, but this was untrue.

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Legal aid and divorce: Theresa May’s cackhanded crusade against Sharia courts

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The British Home Secretary Theresa May seems to want some sort of crackdown on the role of Sharia Councils – complaining in particular that their decisions in divorce matters are unfair to women. Yet her Government has virtually cut off all legal aid for divorce proceedings – with the result that many Muslim women will have little choice but to have their cases heard by Sharia Councils.

Sharia Councils (sometimes known as Sharia courts) are exactly the sort of bodies that the Government might think should be involved in divorce work. The Jewish Beth Din also arbitrates divorce cases, guided by halach, Jewish rabbinical law, and a recent legal case has affirmed that such arbitration will receive a measure of deference in the English and Welsh courts.

In abolishing legal aid for divorce and custody cases except in narrow circumstances, the Ministry of Justice said: “In cases like divorce, courts should more often be a last resort, not the first. Evidence shows that mediation is often more successful, cheaper and less acrimonious for all involved.” Yet, only now (and possibly only as a vote winning ploy) does the Government seem to have realised that family law cases come before Sharia Councils – for advice, mediation or something closer to binding arbitration – and the values of Sharia Councils aren’t necessarily those espoused by Tory ministers and do not meet modern standards regarding female equality. Yet women who might be dissatisfied with the results of of Sharia Council mediation or arbitration have been cut off from recourse to the courts by the new legal aid rules. May said in her speech against extremism announcing a review of Sharia Councils: Read the rest of this entry

GCHQ surveillance illegal – but suddenly it’s not

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So has GCHQ been found guilty of breaches in human rights law or not? You’d be right to be confused. The Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) has issued a resumé of a judgment and news reports tended to take a negative line, saying things like “GCHQ unlawfully spied on British citizens“. The Guardian website started with “GCHQ mass internet surveillance was unlawful, court rules” later going with a more precise “UK-US surveillance was unlawful for seven years“.

Yet, on the face of it the IPT has given GCHQ a pretty clean bill of health in terms of its receipt of UK surveillance information from the National Security Agency (NSA). Up there at the top of the Tribunal’s release was this:

“Save in one possible (and to date hypothetical) respect … the current regime, both in relation to Prism and Upstream [US surveillance programmes] and to s.8(4), [of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA)], when conducted in accordance with the requirements which we have considered, is lawful and human rights compliant.”

The Tribunal ruled the activities lawful now. But until now (or specifically until the IPT judgment in the Liberty v FCO case last December) they weren’t. What has made them legal now? Well, what made things unlawful previously was not, apparently, that GCHQ accessed (from US sources), downloaded and kept material from mass surveillance of UK emails, phone records and internet searches – but that it failed to tell us that it had accessed, downloaded and kept material from mass surveillance of emails, phone records and internet searches. It’s legal now, in part, thanks to the publicity surrounding this very judgment – from a Tribunal that actually sits in secret.

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Capita ordered to pay costs after failure to provide court interpreters

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A judge has ordered outsourcing group Capita to pay £13,000 in local authority costs after an adoption case had to be postponed because the company failed to provide interpreters. Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division condemned as a “truly lamentable state of affairs” Capita’s repeated failure to provide translators for a Roma couple from Slovakia to challenge the adoption of their two children.

The case exposes an apparent flaw in the Capita service based on its failure to put in place contracts with interpreters that will ensure they appear in courts when needed. It also exposes Capita to the risk of further cost orders against it in other cases, dealing a blow to the contract between its subsidiary, Applied Language Solutions Limited (ALS), and the Ministry of Justice.

At a previous hearing Munby P noted: “the contractual arrangements between Capita and the interpreters it provides do not give Capita the ability to require that any particular interpreter accepts any particular assignment, or even to honour any engagement which the interpreter has accepted”. Two interpreters who had accepted the work for 7 May 2014 later cancelled. ALS informed the court at 2pm on the day before the case. An outraged Munby said in the latest cost orders case (14 November 2014):

“This was done by an automatically generated email which included the words ‘We apologise for any inconvenience caused’ – a banal and formulaic statement hardly reflecting the fact that a failure to provide interpreters, particular in a case such as this, causes much more than ‘inconvenience’ to all concerned, not least to the anxious parents. The timing of the sending of this email was, I am told, in accordance with an agreed protocol. That may be, but, for reasons which will become apparent, it does not seem to me to affect Capita’s liability, nor does the fact, as I was told, that court staff have access, by way of a web portal, to the current status of any booking at all times after the booking has been made.”   Read the rest of this entry

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