The government has admitted that conversations between lawyers and their clients that have been monitored by UK intelligence agencies, including MI5 and MI6 are unlawful.
It said that secret policies which enabled the snooping to occur did not comply with European human rights laws.
The highly embarrassing, and rare admission from the government, comes after an on-going legal dispute between the government and lawyers of two Libyan citizens and their families.
MI6 and CIA spies captured Abdul-hakim Belhaj and Fatim Boudchar in a joint operation between US and UK intelligence agencies, and sent them back to Libya to be tortured by the Gaddafi regime in 2004.
Lawyers representing Belhaj are suing the government for being mistreated in a case filed in 2012. But they became suspicious that the likes of GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 were snooping on private conversations, enabling them to hold the upper edge in the 2012 case.
The lawyers therefore filed another case with the Investigatory Powers Tribunal – which oversees cases against the UK intelligence agencies – and claimed that, as a result of the communications interceptions, the government had 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.
A government spokesperson sent the following statement to the Guardian:
“The concession the government has made today relates to the agencies’ policies and procedures governing the handling of legally privileged communications and whether they are compatible with the European convention on human rights.
“In view of recent IPT judgments, we acknowledge that the policies adopted since [January] 2010 have not fully met the requirements of the ECHR, specifically article 8 (right to privacy). This includes a requirement that safeguards are made sufficiently public.”
But the government spokesperson stopped short of admitting that there was any “deliberate wrongdoing” on the part of the security and intelligence agencies, stating that they have taken their obligations to protect legally privileged material extremely seriously.
The spokesperson also maintained that this did not mean that any of the agencies’ activities had prejudiced or in any way resulted in an abuse of the process in any civil or criminal proceedings.
But Cori Crider, a director at Reprieve, and one of Belhaj and Boudchar’s lawyers claimed that the government’s actions did “endanger the fundamental Brtish right to a fair trial”.
“For too long, the security services have been allowed to snoop on those bringing cases against them when they speak to their lawyers. In doing so, they have violated a right that is centuries old in British common law. Today they have finally admitted they have been acting unlawfully for years,” she said in a statement.
Crider urged the government to investigate how things went wrong and “come clean about what it is doing to repair the damage”.