Law Commission lambasted over espionage law proposals

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By Polly Botsford on

Journalists, NGOs and lawyers not happy

SIS Building at Vauxhall Cross, London.

The Law Commission has been heavily criticised for its proposed reforms of official secrets law, with opponents claiming they give too much power to the authorities to potentially imprison genuine whistleblowers and prosecute the press for revealing classified information.

Of all the proposals, the one that has upset the most people is the plan to increase the maximum sentence of anyone found guilty of an offence to substantially more than the current two years. Other suggestions include widening the definition of information which can’t be disclosed to include economic information that “affects the well-being of the UK” and dropping the use of the word “enemy” in the legislation so that individuals could be prosecuted if they leaked information to terrorist groups.

The Guardian called the proposals an “assault on whistleblowers”, while human rights organisation Liberty declared them “oppressive plans [which] have no place in a democracy.”

Alongside outrage from journalists and NGOs alike over the consultation published this month, lawyers have expressed their worries too (though in more measured tones). One Doughty Street lawyer, Jen Robinson, said she has “major concerns” about the Commission’s consultation, Howard Kennedy’s Mark Stephens said the paper throws up “some worrying conclusions”.

In and among all the criticism, lone legal blogger and former chairman of the Law Commission Sir Henry Brooke came out in its defence. In his blog, he said:

It would be nice to think that when the dust settles the Commission’s critics will also settle down to prepare responses to the consultation of the quality that a thoughtful paper of this outstanding quality deserves.

Part of the problem is that this proposed law reform comes not long after the introduction of the so-called “Snoopers’ charter” (otherwise known as the Investigatory Powers Act) last year. Under the charter, there are wider powers for the state to monitor and collect individuals’ web and phone data.

Jo Glanville, Director at English PEN, the freedom of expression organisation, told Legal Cheek:

How can it be that at a time when our intelligence services in this democratic state have more access to our private communications than at any point in history, law reform has been proposed which could impose lengthy jail sentences on journalists, publishers and whistleblowers for disclosing information in the public interest?

The Law Commission’s consultation has been launched in light of the disclosures made by the world’s most famous whistleblower, Edward Snowden, back in 2013 while working for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

In 2015, the then Cameron-led government felt that “archaic” official secrets legislation in the UK was not protecting against unauthorised disclosures of information in a digital age where so much data can be disclosed relatively quickly and easily.

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