‘Stop and search’ survives human rights challenge following row on a London bus

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By Katie King on

Supreme Court backs existing criminal law


The Supreme Court has slapped down the latest in a long line of Human Rights Act-based challenges, leaving the law on stop and search powers firmly on LLB syllabuses.

This morning, the highest court in the land gave its much awaited judgment in an appeal brought by Mrs Roberts, represented by London-based human rights firm Bhatt Murphy Solicitors, against the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, represented by national law firm Weightmans.

In the firing line was the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 — a law which features on criminal law courses. This permits police officers to stop and search any person or vehicle for weapons if he has the authorisation from a senior police officer to do so. This is the case regardless of whether the officer has any grounds for suspecting that the person or vehicle is carrying a weapon.

The appellant, Mrs Roberts — who herself had her bag searched by a police officer under these powers after she failed to pay for her journey on the 149 bus — claimed that these powers are not “in accordance with the law” for the purposes of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and therefore incompatible with her human rights.

With Matrix Chambers’ Hugh Southey QC and Ruth Brander from hip human rights set Doughty Street acting as counsel, Roberts argued that the law does not contain sufficient safeguards to ensure that the powers are not used discriminatorily. Southey pointed out that there are other ways of securing random, unpredictable searches that are truly indiscriminate — in Mexico, for example, passengers are randomly given a red or green light, and whether they are searched is dependent on the colour they are allocated.

Lady Hale, dubbed by law students the ‘Beyoncé of the Supreme Court’, and Lord Reed gave the only substantive judgment in the case — and they were having none of it. Roberts’ appeal was unanimously dismissed, with the court stating:

It would not… be right to make a declaration of incompatibility in this case. Neither would it be appropriate to make a declaration that the Guidance current at the time, or now, was inadequate or that this particular search was not ‘in accordance with the law’.

To justify their decision, the court drew attention to the numerous safeguards and restrictions contained in an Act that law students will be very familiar with — the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, also known as PACE.

And, as for Southey’s red light green light suggestion, the court weren’t liking that either, stating:

It is… rather hard to see how this would work with searches conducted on the street or even on the No 149 bus.