back to article If you're suing the UK govt, Brit spies will snoop on your briefs

British agents spy on lawyers and their clients who are suing the UK government – and then pass their confidential conversations onto the government's legal team, it's claimed. Evidence of dirty tricks surfaced amid a court case brought against the British government by two Libyan families, who were kidnapped and sent back to …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    trust us, we serve for you

    Spying on legal professional privileged communications is one thing, but at least we in the UK Establishment allow journalists complete freedom to monitor the state and shine a bright-light into dark and spooky corners?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: trust us, we serve for you

      Yes but they only let you know what they want to let you know...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: trust us, we serve for you

      Presumably if GCHQ regard this sort of spying as perfectly legal then doctor-patient confidentiality is out of the window too.

      1. Graham Marsden

        @AC - Re: trust us, we serve for you

        > then doctor-patient confidentiality is out of the window too

        No, that's the Government trying to upload all of our medical records to an insecure system and give the details to their friends in the insurance industries etc...

        1. VinceH

          Re: @AC - trust us, we serve for you

          " that's why the Government is trying to upload all of our medical records to an insecure system"


    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: trust us, we serve for you

      Its one thing to spy on criminals, but its another thing for governments to spy on their political enemies for the purpose of suppressing dissidents. This makes the UK government no different than any other oppressive government in the world.

  2. Dan 55 Silver badge


    The UK government declined to comment on ongoing illegal action.

    1. Tapeador

      Re: FTFY

      You mean an action without specific legal authorisation. Ordinarily, under the rule laid down by the courts in the 1765 case Entick v Carrington (searching a writer's house without a warrant), government bodies must have legal authorisation for their specific acts, covering the whole act. However the royal prerogative still can enable the executive branch (i.e. the government), to in certain specified AND unspecified (but always emergency-type) scenarios, act without specific legal authorisation. These include most famously, the exercise of the war power, choosing whether to issue passports, appointing chairs of public inquiries, among other things - and I'm virtually certain, such acts as are necessary to stop atrocities, including surveillance.

      Client-lawyer privilege is I believe a customary, not statutory rule which would ordinarily be protected by Article 8 and Article 6 ECHR. However both those Articles are subject to derogation, and although Article 6 doesn't really list derogations, they're generally permitted by the Strasbourg court when "the life of the nation is at stake". The ECtHR doesn't want unhindered terrorist atrocities on its hands. I think that they would likely honour proportionate action under the royal prerogative mentioned above.

      Proportionate is the word. Proportionate to the reasonably perceived risk. Obviously the government can't just do this so as to not lose cases. That would be illegal, bigtime. There must be a genuine security reason.

      1. Jonathan Richards 1

        Proportionality, indeed

        > when "the life of the nation is at stake".

        Please read those words quoted above. And again, if you will.

        Now, ask yourself in what way any terrorist action of the last fifty years has threatened "the life of" the United Kingdom. Specifically, in what way could the UK have been extinguished? The words you re-read don't say "the comfort of the nation", or "the collective anxiety of the nation", or "safety of parts of the nation", they say "the life of the nation". In no way can HMG make out that losing a case in court will threaten the life of the nation. Please plead guilty: we can all see that you are.

  3. Anomalous Cowshed

    Picture the scene...

    A small group of very smartly dressed, tall and well-spoken people loitering around the corner of a suburban street after dark. The signal is given. They jump over fences and into a garden, inspect the briefs on the washing lines, snatch one pair and disappear into the night.

    Later on, at a lab back at HQ, the briefs are analysed, and a report is tendered to N (the head of GCHQ).

    "Fine work, men, and you too, women" says N. "Now we know what brand of washing powder they use, which was our first objective. However, our next step has to be to get a pair of unwashed briefs. This will give us clues as to their personal hygiene and where they shop for their underwear. Any suggestions on how we might go about it?"

    "We could arrange for a burglary of the premises while everyone is out, and take a pair of briefs out of the washing basket" suggests agent 003.

    "Too risky" says M. "What if they've just done the washing? There won't be any briefs in the basket. No, we need something which is less likely to end up in failure."

    "How about using one of our Page 4 (TM) girls to lure them away to a sleazy hotel, and while they are having sex, one of our team sneaks into the room and removes the suspect's briefs from the floor."

    "What if the briefs are not on the floor though?" asks N. "What if the suspect merely dropped them rather than taking them off altogether? It won't do. Besides what about the women and children? You are not suggesting that we deal with them in the same way are you? We need something more creative.

    "How about an evening-time burglary while the family is having dinner" suggests 0021234. "We go in with a full swat team, including a Page 4 (TM) girl. We get the Page 4 (TM) girl and two of our special forces operatives to drag away the father to a sleazy hotel, with strict instructions that he's not to come out of that hotel with his underpants on. The rest of the family we arrest on charges of committing offences likely to foster terrorism: parking on a yellow line in the case of the mother, and being rude to teacher / not doing one's homework in the case of the children. We take them to court right away. They'll have to file their briefs. We switch them there and then, sight unseen, for other briefs that we will have just brought with us. Job done"

    "Excellent" says N, patting the brilliant young recruit on the head. "Well done. Let's do it. I'm putting you in charge of this operation!"

    1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

      Re: Picture the scene...

      But what if, in mid mission, it turns out that he wears boxers & not briefs? They'll have to ban all un-British underwear first.

      1. Anomalous Cowshed

        Re: Picture the scene...

        "Boxers? That's dangerous, against health and safety. I hope you have a boxing license on you Sir!"

        "Boxing license? What are you talking about? I never..."

        "I see you are trying to mislead the forces of law and order. Such behaviour might constitute an attempt to conceal terrorist activities. Grab him and strip search him, right now!"

  4. Interim Project Manager

    In some ways this is even more despicable than the blanket monitoring of all our communications. Effectively this is denying the defendant a right to a fair trial, undermining the entire justice process. The right to private communications with ones brief is a key aspect of the legal system we have in place.

    Along with secret 'terrorism' trials and the move towards a view of 'guilty until proven innocent' this is a seriously concerning issue.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      When I hear claims from middle-eastern extremists making claims about the corrupt west - I think this is what they are referring to.

      1. william 10

        Exactly. To me it looks like the biggest support that unfriendly foreign powers and extremists have had came from our own government & security services 1997-2010 and now is being continued by our supposed security services alone.

        Firstly we need proper effective oversight of our security services (please note our Law makers who provide oversight failed to spot the fact that MI5/6 where undermining the Judicial system they had set up and oversee). The British citizens must understand the scope of what the security services are aloud to do and have confidence in the oversight that ensures they stick within that scope - once this has been accomplished we can then look at the other issues.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      It is not despicable - it is Soviet Standard

      This was pretty much the standard in the Soviet Union during its darkest days and as Comrade Stalin used to say: "Soviet Justice cannot be wrong". So it cannot be despicable - it on par with other pinnacle of soviet justice such as the removal of the right to be presumed Innocent until proven Guilty as in the 1937 USSR Criminal Code (and the current UK terrorism and health and safety legislation).

      We have become them. From there on the only right we the plebs have remaining is the right to shut up.

      1. heyrick Silver badge

        Re: It is not despicable - it is Soviet Standard

        " From there on the only right we the plebs have remaining is the right to shut up. "

        I thought they took that one away from us too.

    3. earl grey

      That, of course, assumes one important thing

      And that is that you can actually PROVE yourself innocent and have the ways and means at your disposal to prove said. Most are never given a chance; don't get a fair trial (what's that?), and will be eventually released with a not-so-gentle "and don't do that again." from the overbearing club of the government.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      > Along with secret 'terrorism' trials and the move towards a view of 'guilty until proven innocent' this is a seriously concerning issue.

      Yup. I have had the fortune or otherwise of living under a hard-line dictatorship, an absolutist monarchy, a Jamahiriya (no guesses as to where!), and various forms of liberal democracy. Everyone else but the last group were at least very honest as to what the rules were and where you stood.

      Democracy this is indeed. Let us not forget than in ancient Athens those who had any say were a minority (most inhabitants were not citizens, and women and children did not count), and those who had any direct influence on determining policy were even less. We play the same role as the slaves and other non-citizens in ancient Athens: they pretend they take us into account, but we're only here to finance those in power through our taxes and labour.

  5. JimmyPage Silver badge
    Big Brother

    And we laughed at the Russians ...

    typewriters, couriered documents, and meetings in ad hoc cafes is the way to go.

    1. g e

      Re: And we laughed at the Russians ...

      And burner phones

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: And we laughed at the Russians ...

      >And we laughed at the Russians

      Did we? Given KGB assets were running much of British intelligence post-war until at least the 60's - rumour has it early 70s - I think they mostly laugh at us.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: And we laughed at the Russians ...

        Based on their record of spies/traitors we have to assume that Al Queda has been running MI5 for the last 15-20 years.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: And we laughed at the Russians ...

      Yeah, I was quite amused reading the rant about "The Leviathan" @ the Guardian this morning.

      Classic case of left hand does not know what the right hand does - the guy who wrote it should be seconded to the groups that follow up on the tribunal, Gitmo and the Snowden affair so that he sees what is a _REAL_ Leviathan.

  6. corestore

    So *that's* what happened... the Met Special Demonstration Squad. They got new jobs, after they had finished spying on the family of Stephen Lawrence, and knocking up assorted environmental protestors...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: So *that's* what happened...

      they're all extremists, so all perfectly legit, innit.

  7. Jason Bloomberg Silver badge

    Policy and law

    Are these agencies not bound by the normal laws of the land?

    It would seem not and therein lies the problem.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Policy and law

      Theoretically, they are.

      They always think that they are not "in the name of the public good/the bright communist future/the racial purity of the Arian nation/etc (scratch the ones not needed).

      The problem begins when the control over them is lost so they can do what they think and not what the law obliges them to do.

  8. TheAincient

    Oversight, what oversight!

    So, the government keeps telling up that the security services have 'robust' oversight and we should trust them.

    Well I think that this goes to prove that the so called oversight has failed miserably.

  9. dogged

    Oh for fuck's sake

    I'm seriously starting to think it's time we shut down the whole damn lot of them and built something new that has regulations and public regulators.

    We should probably shut down Parliament too. Same reasons.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      We should probably shut down Parliament too. Same reasons.

      I'm afraid this view is highly extremist in nature, so I would expect the unexpected, if I were you. Within the constraints of the law, of course!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      > I'm seriously starting to think it's time we shut down the whole damn lot of them

      Shut down? Or did you intend to put a couple "o"s in there?

    3. Mark 65

      The current system is much like trying to retrofit security to an OS rather than designing it in from the start. We all know how that ends.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    even these have an exemption if "extremists" are involved.

    ah, yes, the "extremists", as per current requirement, nothing new, I see.

    1. Just Enough

      Re: even these have an exemption if "extremists" are involved.

      This provision was put in place to make it easy for agencies to perform and find and replace on documents;

      Find: suspect

      Replace with: extremist

      Job done, nothing to worry about here, all legal.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "In how many cases has the Government eavesdropped to give itself an unfair advantage in court?"

    lol, in how many cases it hasn't?

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    We'll be next

    This must really choke you if you're a lawyer who's already had to fight tooth and nail to acquire the evidence you do have, only to find the other side are stacking the deck in a way you can't counter. The technology just encourages laziness from those with so much power, but who can't be bothered to use it in a way the rest of the population would consider just, fair or responsible. Perhaps they are so arrogant they actually believe their own bloody propaganda about proportional etc, etc. Or perhaps they're simply evil.

    One thing's for sure; in the way such remits always seem to grow as those in charge get more comfortable with what they're doing, it will be widened to suit whatever particular case on individual the state wants to nail - probably starting with those 'we know he's a villain but we just don't have the evidence' cases the police hate so much. Doctors records, lawyer client communications, nothing will eventually be beyond them. I'd be utterly astonished if we didn't have a PM in 20 years time justifying access to all communications by police and prosecutors on the basis of the cost savings and increase in conviction rates creating better value for the public, with a few pedoterrorists dangled as a carrot to the public, lest they think too hard about the real implications.

    The only positive is that the spooks amply provide by far the best arguments for their own curtailment and the solid encryption of all devices and comms. Whether we get to use the arguments is another matter.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: We'll be next

      If you are a lawyer working for somebody who has the temerity to sue the government then you are obviously a extremist, if not an actual supporter of terrorism, so you get all you deserve.

  13. Martin Taylor 1

    This is just...


  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Heal UK!

    Once UKIP gets to power these sort of shenanigans will be tolerated no longer!

    1. Les Matthew

      Re: Heal UK!

      Let me introduce to the real world.

      If UKIP ever get into power, they will be no different.

    2. squigbobble

      Re: Heal UK!

      I think you meant to use the 'Joke Alert' icon.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Actually, this isn't news ...

    There was a story a few years back where the Supreme Court (IIRC it was the Law Lords then) ruled that RIPA trumped legal privilege. Their reasoning was that since it was obvious that the powers regulated would allow privilege to be breached, the fact that parliament did not address the issue was a demonstration that it was the intention at the time (rather than an accidental oversight).

    I was posting in a legal forum at the time, and was told that the assertion that RIPA trumps privilege was nonsense - by a lawyer. I pointed them to the relevant case and they had to agree. Shocked and disbelieving.

    1. David Roberts
      Black Helicopters

      Re: Actually, this isn't news ...

      Thanks for the link.

      Ploughing through it, but am I correct in concluding that this is a dissenting minority opinion against the majority conclusion that RIPA trumps everything?

      If, so, given the widespread abuse of RIPA by all and sundry, should we be looking at strong encryption for email plus other technology to jam electronic eavesdropping for all client/lawyer conversations?

      [Especially when being sued by the local council for improper use of a wheelie bin.]

      Or is this trumped in turn by the right to monitor client and lawyer conversations where they may be being used to plan or further criminal activity?

      Additionally, does this now restrict when and where you can wear a tinfoil hat?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Actually, this isn't news ...

      Reading it, it does and it does not.

      RIPA (and not just RIPA - police act, secret services act, etc) according to the law lord's opinion _DOES_ _NOT_ offer any privilege to the lawyer. The privilege is solely with the client.

      This makes it quite interesting, as if in a terrorism case, according to this decision as it does not offer protection to the lawyer the police can now use the full brunt of the "accessory to terrorism" and "not reporting" offences against the lawyer (the opinion is quite clear that there is no legal privilege in that case).

      No comment really...

  16. gnasher729 Silver badge

    How can government lawyers accept this?

    It's one thing that secret service is spying on certain people. Spying is their business, and they might get carried away. Wrong, but understandable.

    However, when this information gets passed on to government lawyers, whose job it is to be lawyers and understand and uphold the law, how can these guys accept any of this information? Wouldn't the only thing a lawyer could do in that situation be to refuse the information, and go straight to the judge and tell them about it?

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: How can government lawyers accept this?

      The bit you are missing is "government lawyers"

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: How can government lawyers accept this?

      I wonder what the Bar Council has to say about them.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: How can government lawyers accept this?

        "Good on you, old boy, and if you need help on a big Government case don't forget me, will you?"

        Lawyers regulate lawyers. Quis custodiet?

    3. btrower

      Re: How can government lawyers accept this?

      This is really an 'Alice In Wonderland' landscape we have. So much of what is going on is patently illegal that it is clear the system itself has just broken down.

      Here in Canada, anyway, Lawyers are 'officers of the court' and have certain mandatory duties to the justice system. They are bound to uphold the law. The government lawyers in this case should all be disbarred and some at least should be facing jail time.

      Some of what has happened in recent years is, in my opinion, so contrary to any fundamental sense of law and order that there should be no statute of limitations and no legal theory under which the perpetrators can escape paying for their misdeeds.

      We have already established that some crimes transcend national laws and are not subject to statutes of limitation. These crimes injure the world's ability to administer justice and keep the peace. We don't see so much of the violence and torture in the first world, but the mechanisms that these criminals have put in place enable that violence and torture elsewhere. It is only a matter of time until it becomes plainly manifest at home.

      Nobody should be beyond the reach of a natural justice. Heads of state that order murders abroad should be held accountable. Lawyers participating in this plainly illegal activity should be disbarred and prosecuted. People involved in perverting the justice system at home and abroad should be held accountable.

      At the end of the day, it is all about wealth and power. Operationally, might makes right. As individuals we are at the mercy of the people who have hijacked the state apparatus. However, as a collective it is still us that holds the majority of the power and it is certainly us who hold the sovereign rights to that power.

      Rather than escalate the carnage, we should gently shut it all down through the ballot box and finances. Laying off vast portions of the legal and paramilitary foot-soldiers that keep this nasty system in place is likely the most effective way to bring this sad chapter of history to a close. The worst offenders and ring-leaders should be prosecuted and jailed so they cannot cause any more mischief. Fellow travelers should be prosecuted and convicted if guilty so they are aware that what they did is entirely wrong and punishable. However, to bring things to a close I would be inclined to grant an amnesty to most, particularly those who are quick to lay down arms.

      It is instructive to look at things like this: -- at the end of the day, the people involved in suppressing civil liberties know they are on the wrong side. I would not underestimate the power of naming and shaming people in the middle ranks, such as the aforementioned lawyers.

      1. Zog_but_not_the_first

        Re: How can government lawyers accept this?

        "At the end of the day, it is all about wealth and power."

        Really all you need to know.

  17. Sureo

    The War Against Terror (TWAT)

    That's why I love reading the Reg.

  18. i like crisps


    Y'know since Signal Intelligence is so drunk on power.....wonder what the spouses of the operatives who work in these Government Departments (on the Tax Payers tit) think about their significant others day job of delivering a Police State for the New World Order....wonder if they're proud of them? Wonder if their children are?

    1. Martin Taylor 1


      Best leave spouses and children out of this.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward


        Best leave spouses and children out of this.

        Care to explain why exactly? As these spy agencies wont hesitate to drag everyone elses family into whatever it is they are to fit someone up for

        Source fo the goose & all that jazz

        Perhaps if the spies were put through the same kind of wringer they seem to enjoy putting other through so much, they would be a bit more careful about exercising thier 'powers'

  19. JaitcH
    Thumb Down

    Now, after me, repeat the mantra ...

    “All of GCHQ's work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework, which ensure[s] that our activities are authorized, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the Secretary of State, the Interception and Intelligence Services Commissioners and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. All of our operational processes rigorously support this position.”

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Now, after me, repeat the mantra ...

      And I'm sure Auschwitz got proper planning permission

  20. kain preacher

    Here in the states the CIA spied on congress members and staffers PCs, that were looking into the CIA spying on US citizens.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Where is your 2nd amendment

    Where is your 2nd amendment that so many people make fun of and poke that those crazy muricans who decided all those years ago that the "government" they had wasn't protecting them and wasn't going to be protecting them and standing up for their rights? At some point when you need to be able to radically alter your government to something slightly less oppressive, you will need to have the ability to make changes those in power will seriously resist.

  22. Chris G

    We know where you live!

    The UK government has always kept tabs on the population as much as it can:

    It's just that 'as much as it can is so much bigger now'!

    From Widdlypaedia; "People born and resident in the UK are assigned an NI number shortly before their 16th birthday. However, allocation of this number might occur a long time before this occasion (the date can usually be established from the prefix letters used".

    I was told some years ago that if you came to the attention of the authorities in any way as a juvenile that this would happen and then be linked to a CRO file in the case of truants or juvenile court cases. Clearly because you may become an extremist one day, or even a paedophile.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: We know where you live!

      upon a valid birth registration being completed, a NI number / NHS Number & probably a whole bunch of other numbers will be created for the person named in said birth registration.

      Usually these are subject to change up to the persons 16th birthday or first use whichever comes first, which probably explains the juvenile records thing

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: We know where you live!

      And your point is?

      Most Eu nations allocate a NI number at the issuance of the birth certificate. For example in Bulgaria your NI number is in your passport, any identity document and everything is indexed by it. Even your parking tickets.

      The difference is that Bulgaria has a "fundamental law" and none of the bullshit "parliament is sovereign and cannot be bound" - it is very bound on it _AND_ the principle of legal privilege is in that fundamental law along with the presumption of innocence. Same for all Scandinavian countries. Germany is the same too if memory serves me right (probably sans the parking tickets being indexed by NI). I can go around Europe and end of the day there will be at most a couple of countries where NI is not issued at birth. Similarly all countries except UK have the principle of legal privilege and presumption of innocence enshrined in their fundamental law.

      In fact, if anything this shows that the "parliament is sovereign and cannot be bound" which was introduced as a knee-jerk reaction to royalty trying to bind has done its time and should go. It is long past its time. It needs to be bound by a fundamental law (the original UK Bill of Rights of 1688 and the Act of Settlement are a good start).

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

  23. All names Taken
    Paris Hilton

    It is abuse

    In the main it is abuse.

    It means disrespecting a UK subject for potential pecuniary gain and who is to say that such a gain is also a personal enrichment or opportunity for the same?

    Q: On the other hand do we really expect power wielders to altruistically wield power?

    My ans: uh-huh baby, the human condition rates self-preservation as a real top aim in life and risk?

    Q: has anything changed in thousands of years?

    My ans: uh-huh baby

  24. Rogue64

    I really think that this is a double edged sword. The UK Security Services could have been acting in good faith in the original request for information and passed it on to the CIA. But surely part of the argument is that these families are suing the UK and USA and no mention of suing the Libyan regime where the alleged torture took place.

    Once again this smacks of easy touch Britain. So part of me thinks good oh for saving the british tax payer hundreds of thousands of pounds (if not millions). but then the big brother is watching question rears its ugly head again

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