The Prisoner’s Letter

No. 11 of #50cases.

Human rights law takes no issue with people being punished for their crimes, and being sent to prison. But prisons are not human rights-free zones. In particular, it’s important that prisoners can communicate with their lawyers without being spied on by prison guards. That’s what this case was about.

Mr Daly was in prison for life. A policy was introduced that said prison officers could examine letters sent from legal advisors to prisoners even before the inmates themselves had seen them, and without them being present. Mr Daly challenged the policy. He said it infringed his, and other prisoners’, right to confidentiality of legal correspondence, protected under the right to privacy. All he wanted was for inmates to be present when their letters were being read.

The judges in the House of Lords (now the Supreme Court) concluded that this did infringe on prisoners’ rights and that the interference was not justified. While there were good reasons to check prisoners’ mail, this policy went too far. It was wrong that prison officers got to see the letters first. The fact that the prisoners wouldn’t be present at the time meant there was a risk that the officers would abuse their position.

This case was especially important because it was one of the first cases decided by the UK’s highest court after the Human Rights Act came into force. The judges actually used our common law to make the decision, though they also said the result would have been the same under human rights law. And they made clear that human rights cases had to be decided according to what was proportionate. In other words, the ends must fit the means. In this case, they didn’t.

Image Credit: Pixabay

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

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