Lawyers’ bid to protect client talks from spies

The Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, one of the agencies accused of spying on lawyers' exchanges with clients. Picture: PA
The Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, one of the agencies accused of spying on lawyers' exchanges with clients. Picture: PA
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LAWYERS have called for state protection of client confidentiality after it emerged the security services have been routinely spying on their exchanges.

A joint statement issued today by members of the bar in Scotland, England and Wales, and Northern Ireland, demanded that new legislation be brought forward to protect privileged exchanges from eavesdropping.

It follows the release of official documents last month which showed intelligence agencies have been allowing staff to access confidential communications between lawyers and their clients.

The admission came in papers held by MI5, MI6 and listening agency GCHQ which were made public during a hearing of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which examines complaints against the intelligence services.

In what they called an “unprecedented” show of unity, advocates, barristers and solicitors from across the UK issued a joint statement calling for the use of surveillance to be protected by “robust and transparent” legislation.

The Bar Council and the Law Society for England and Wales said codes protecting legal professional privilege from state surveillance and acquisition of communications data had proved to be “weak and ineffectual”.

James Wolffe, QC, dean of the Faculty of Advocates, said: “Lawyer-client confidentiality matters to anyone who needs or might need legal representation.


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“It is a core value of the legal profession across Europe. This unprecedented joint declaration by the bars and law societies of the United Kingdom reflects our common commitment to fundamental professional values.”

Alistair Morris, president of the Law Society of Scotland, added: “It is essential for a client to have complete trust in his or her lawyer and that conversations and correspondence are treated as confidential.

“If we cannot be assured of this, it will lead to not only a breach in a lawyer’s duty towards their client, but a breach of trust and potentially limit what a client is willing to share. This ultimately would undermine our whole system of justice.

“It is very important that the intelligence agencies can do their work in order to protect the UK and those who live here. However they must also always uphold fundamental human rights and the rule of law.”

In November, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal heard that updated MI5 guidance published in January advised lawyers that while there was no “legal prohibition” on reading privileged material relating to their cases, doing so should be “avoided” to prevent prejudicing proceedings.

The documentation was released following a legal action brought by Libyans Abdul Hakim Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi, who sued the British government for alleged complicity in their detention and rendition.

Families involved with the Belhaj case brought a claim to the IPT that their private discussions with legal charity Reprieve and law firm Leigh Day were being intercepted.

The families have brought litigation about the rendition and allege that any interception of privileged communications has infringed their right to a fair trial.


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