Fresh concerns have been raised over the proposals that have come to be known as the “snoopers’ charter” and the impact they may have on the legal industry. The House of Lords has become the latest body to voice fears that the passing of such legislation could endanger professional privilege.
The investigatory powers bill came before the House of Lords for its second reading earlier this week. Although the bill passed its second reading, key legal figures from the Lords condemned it and the threat it could potentially pose to matters of professional privilege and client confidentiality.
The bill, which has been under discussion for a few years and generating controversy all the while, proposes giving law enforcement agencies additional powers of surveillance. It would clarify certain aspects of the laws already in place regarding the interception of communications, and also introduce new laws. These would require that records of online communications and internet activity from members of the public be retained for potential access by law enforcement.
Concerns about the impact this could have on the legal profession have previously been raised by bodies such as the Law Society. When the bill was subjected to debate by the House of Lords during its second reading, many peers directly referred to those concerns or expressed similar sentiments.
The main fear about the potential ramifications of the bill for the legal sector relate to professional privilege, the principle that keeps communications between lawyers and their clients confidential. This is important in order for legal counsel to maintain an open, honest, and trusting relationship with clients and to represent them properly. The “snoopers’ charter” could allow law enforcement access to those communications, compromising confidentiality principles and the ability of clients to talk openly and honestly with their legal representatives.
Lord Pannick QC said that protections for legal professionals in the bill were “piecemeal” and suggested that the government may wish for authorities to gain access to communications that are protected by professional privilege.
Pannick said: “To allow the authorities access to genuinely privileged information would inevitably mean that clients could no longer be guaranteed confidentiality by their lawyers. This would inevitably deter clients from speaking frankly to their lawyers and therefore undermine the rule of law.”
Pannick called for better protections for legal communication to be written into the bill. He also said that the bar for accessing privileged information under the powers proposed in the bill should be set high, allowing this only in “exceptional and compelling circumstances.”