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Lawyer-client privilege no bar to surveillance, say Lords

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:12 pm on 27 March, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, democracy and the rule of law, British politics.
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The Register reports:

Solicitor Manmohan Sandhu was charged at Antrim Magistrates’ Court with incitement to murder and intending to pervert the course of justice. The evidence against Sandhu consisted of recordings of conversations he had with clients in a room in Antrim police station.

Sandhu claimed that it was against the law for police to record his discussions with his clients because of legal professional privilege. A Divisional Court backed his claim, but the case was appealed to the House of Lords.

Lord Carswell in the House of Lords said that RIPA does allow for the surveillance of privileged communications.

“In its natural and ordinary sense [RIPA] is capable of applying to privileged consultations and there is nothing in its wording which would operate to exclude them,” he wrote in his ruling. “It seems to me unlikely that the possibility of RIPA applying to privileged consultations could have passed unnoticed [in Parliament]. On the contrary, it is an obvious application of the Act, yet no provision was put in to exclude them.”

Lord Carswell said that legal professional privilege cannot be absolute, that it has to have exceptions. “If it were not possible to exercise covert surveillance of legal consultations where it is suspected on sufficiently strong grounds that the privilege was being abused, the law would confer an unjustified immunity on dishonest lawyers,” he wrote.

“There may be other situations where it would be lawful to monitor privileged consultations, for example, if it is necessary to obtain information of an impending terrorist attack or to prevent the threatened killing of a child,” said Lord Carswell. “The limits of such possible exceptions have not been defined and I shall not attempt to do so, but they could not exist if the rule against surveillance of privileged consultations were absolute.”

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