Secret policies governing the interception of communications that the government has been forced to release show that GCHQ has been routinely intercepting “legally privileged communications” between lawyers and their clients in sensitive legal cases.
The disclosure comes in response to a case brought in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) by the al Saadi and Belhadj families, who were subjected to rendition in a joint operation between US and UK intelligence agencies.
Both families, represented by legal charity Reprieve and solicitors Leigh Day, are suing the government over the kidnappings and have claimed that, as a result of the communications interceptions, the government has infringed their right to a fair trial.
Legal privilege is a central principle of British law, claims Reprieve, which protects confidential communication between a lawyer and their client. If the government is able to access such communications, it hands itself an unfair advantage in court.
“Because of a lack of effective information barriers between the intelligence officers carrying out interception and the agencies’ legal staff, Reprieve is concerned that government lawyers involved in the High Court case may have seen confidential communications between the families and their legal team,” claimed Reprieve in a statement.
Richard Stein, a partner at Leigh Day, continued: “After many months’ resistance, the security services have now been forced to disclose the policies which they claim are in place to protect the confidential communications between lawyers and their clients.
“We can see why they were so reluctant to disclose them. They highlight how the security services instruct their staff to flout these important principles in a cavalier way. We hope the IPT will tell the government in no uncertain terms that this conduct is completely unacceptable.”
Conservative MP David Davis, who has campaigned against state surveillance, told The Guardian that past practice had been to delete any such material that might be picked up by the intelligence services.
The disclosure comes just days after GCHQ’s new head called for greater surveillance powers for the intelligence agencies. He argued that the organisation needed even more power to eavesdrop on people’s electronic communications in order to help it fight terrorism – claims dissected by Peter Gothard and Sooraj Shah in a Computing analysis this week.