The Police Were Listening

No. 16 of #50cases.

When should police be able to listen to our private phone calls? Is being suspected of a crime a good enough reason? What if you’ve already been acquitted?

In 1984, James Malone was accused of handling stolen goods. During the the trial, the prosecution used evidence that could only have been obtained through listening to one of his phone calls. Mr. Malone believed this was just the tip of the iceberg – he’d suspected for a number of years that both his phone conversations, and his letters, were being spied upon. When challenged, the police admitted that they had tapped his phone, but argued that this was legal as they had obtained a warrant from the Home Secretary.

Mr Malone was acquitted, but even after the trial, he continued to hear strange noises as though somebody was listening to his calls. He asked for any remaining devices to be removed, but was told nothing could be done. Finally, he brought a case against the police, arguing that the simple fact of obtaining a warrant did not mean that tapping his phone was or ever had been legal.

The European Court agreed, ruling that Mr Malone’s right to a private life had been violated. While the European Convention on Human Rights means that surveillance may sometimes be necessary to prevent crime, in this case the UK had not been acting in accordance with the law. The requirement to obtain a warrant was in practice arbitrary, as there was no guidance available saying in which circumstances these would be granted. So today, the police can listen to your phone calls, but they need a reason which will stand up in court.

This story is a short summary of a legal decision. You can read the full text here

Media Coverage of this story