Rights Group Win Allows Courts to Scrutinize Spy Agencies

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Privacy campaigners are hailing a major legal victory after the Supreme Court ruled that the intelligence services should not be exempt from oversight by ordinary UK courts.

Privacy International (PI) has fought a five-year case with the government, following the Edward Snowden disclosures that UK spies used bulk hacking techniques which may have impacted millions.

The case was initially heard in the secret Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) — which rules specifically on cases involving the intelligence services. It agreed in principle with the government that it would be acceptable to use a single, broad warrant to hack every mobile phone in a UK city.

PI tried to fight that decision in the High Court, with the government arguing that IPT rulings couldn’t be subject to regular judicial review. Both the High Court and then the Court of Appeal agreed with the government, but the rights group was in 2017 allowed to take its case all the way to the Supreme Court.

Its decision yesterday effectively means that IPT decisions can be subject to judicial review in the High Court, which means mistakes made by the tribunal can now be corrected by the courts.

PI general counsel, Caroline Wilson Palow, argued the ruling was a “historic victory for the rule of law.”

“Countries around the world are currently grappling with serious questions regarding what power should reside in each branch of government. Today's ruling is a welcome precedent for all of those countries, striking a reasonable balance between executive, legislative and judicial power,” she added.

“Today's ruling paves the way for Privacy International's challenge to the UK government's use of bulk computer hacking warrants. Our challenge has been delayed for years by the government's persistent attempt to protect the IPT’s decisions from scrutiny. We are heartened that our case will now go forward."

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