An overview of Civil Liberties legislation since 1900
by Matthew Robb
This overview is far from comprehensive, but I hope will be continually updated.
[Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and have no technical knowledge of civil liberties. However, maintaining civil liberties is, in my opinion, the responsibility of all citizens, and should not be, must not be, left to technicians (like so much else). However, we would welcome comments and feedback on this essay from all sources. MR]
|Why should anyone care?|
|What are civil liberties?|
|Timeline of civil liberties legislation|
One needs to be careful in assuming that there was ever a romantic, golden age of civil liberties in this country [Link to ref 1]. Nonetheless, in important ways, civil liberties and the supporting democratic infrastructure of the UK have been gradually undermined over the course of the last century. Despite recent headline-grabbing advances in civil liberties (for example, incorporation of European Human Rights legislation), these attacks have accelerated.
The purpose of this document is to chart these attacks, with the main pieces of legislation.
There is always a discussion about what liberties or rights are. They almost always include the basic provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but can include more political rights. For (my) convenience, I have loosely followed the characterisation of civil liberties used in Freedom Under Thatcher: Civil Liberties in Modern Britain, by K.D. Ewing and C.A. Gearty. I have added a couple more from Freedom, the Individual and the Law, by Geoffrey Robertson.
These give roughly the following four major clusters:
The table below includes the history of the steady, continual disarming of the UK population.
|1903||Pistols Act||Requirement to obtain a gun licence before purchase of a firearm with a barrel shorter than 9 inches.|
|1911||Official Secrets Act||Freedom of information||Replaces the previous Act of 1889. The bill was forced through the House of Commons into law in under an hour, despite protests of MPs that no discussion was permitted. [Full notes]|
|1914||Aliens Restriction Act||Freedom of movement||Passed on August 5th, the day after war was declared. This Act authorised regulations to be made imposing restrictions on the immigration and free movement of aliens . Specifically, it gave the Home Secretary untrammelled power to exclude and expel aliens, without rights of appeal or even the right to make representations, and without any protection for refugees. |
|1920a||Official Secrets Act||Freedom of information||Introduced to strengthen, rather than repeal the Official Secrets Act of 1911. Part of a general tendency to retain wartime provisions in the Defence of the Realm Act in peacetime.|
|1920b||Dangerous Drugs Act|
|1920c||Firearms Act||Requiring registration of firearms owned, but did not initially affect smoothbore weapons, which were available for purchase without any form of paperwork.|
|1922||Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act||All elements of criminal justice, and basic freedoms of assembly, association, and movement. Exacerbated anti-nationalist discrimination (through partisan enforcement)||Source of all emergency legislation in Northern Ireland until
replaced by 1973 Act. Passed by Home Rule (Northern Ireland) government.
|1937||Firearms Act||Fully automatic weapons were almost completely banned from private ownership, except in certain special collectors, museums and prop companies. Control of shotguns with barrels shorter than 20 inches.|
|1943||Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act (Northern Ireland)||Criminal justice, esp. fair trial and personal liberty||Special powers amendments in the light of increased IRA activity
Increased the penalties that could be imposed on offenders under the SPA (imprisonment from a maximum of 2 years to 14 and/or fines from a maximum of £100 to £500). 
|1946||Self-defence no longer considered a valid reason to own a gun.|
|1953||Prevention of Crime Act||“Any person who without lawful authority
or reasonable excuse, the proof whereof shall lie on him,
has with him in any public place any offensive weapon shall
be guilty of an offence [...]”
This allows police to arrest for any excuse - "I thought that nail file could be an offensive weapon".
|1965||Firearms act||Control of shotguns with barrels shorter than 24 inches.|
|1967||Criminal Justice Act||First control of long-barrelled shotguns, requiring a person to obtain a "Shotgun Certificate" to own any shotgun. This Act did not require the registration of shotguns, only licensing.|
|1984||Police and Criminal Evidence Act (1984)||Police powers and personal liberty||Arrest
|1986||Public Order Act (1986)||Attacks on freedom of assembly.|
|1988||Firearms (Amendment) Act||
• Banned semiautomatic and pump-action centrefire
rifles, military weapons firing explosive ammunition, and short shotguns
that had magazines.
|1989||The Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act (1989)||Police powers and personal liberty, fair trial, freedom of movement, freedom of association||The Prevention of Terrorism Act is possibly the best example (along with the Official Secrets Act) of legislation introduced because of an emergency, which then never disappears. In this case, the executive still has the cheek to call the Act Temporary provisions, despite the fact that most of the provisions of this Act have been law since 1974.|
|1994||Criminal Justice and Public Order Act||
• Part IV, Sections 34-39, substantially changed
the right to silence of an accused person, allowing for inferences to
be drawn from their silence.
|1997||Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1997||
Handguns almost completely banned for private ownership.
Exceptions to the ban include muzzle-loading "blackpowder" guns,
pistols produced before 1917, pistols of historical interest (such as
pistols used in notable crimes, rare prototypes, unusual serial numbers
and so on), starting pistols, pistols that are of particular aesthetic
interest (such as engraved or jewelled guns) and shot pistols for pest
control. Even Britain's Olympic shooters fall under this ban; as a result
of this law, the British pistol shooting team must train outside the country
Football (Disorder) Act, 2000
The Football (Disorder) Act 2000 represents
a significant restriction of the civil liberties of all citizens, not
just football hooligans. The Act has a number of deficiencies, explained
in this commentary.
|Terrorism Act, 2000||commentary|
|Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, 2000||commentary|
Almost all the information in this essay comes from four sources:
|1.||K.D. Ewing and C.A. Gearty||The Struggle for Civil Liberties: Political Freedom and the Rule of Law in Britain, 1914-1945||
|2.||Freedom under Thatcher: Civil liberties in Modern Britain||OUP, 0198254148
out of print
| Ewing is Professor
of Public Law at King's College, London
Gearty is Professor of Human Rights Law at King's College, London
|3.||Geoffrey Robertson QC||
Freedom, the individual and the law
|7th edition, Penguin
UK: £10.39, USA:$29.95
(Available 26 July, 2001)
|Robertson is a barrister who has appeared in several landmark cases involving civil liberties, for example, the Matrix Churchill trial|
|4.||Helen Fenwick||Civil Liberties||1998, 2nd ed., Cavendish Publishing
|Fenwick is senior lecturer in law at the University of Durham|
Pity the Nation : The Abduction of Lebanon
3rd revised ed.,
Oxford Paperbacks, 0192801309 £7.99
© magnacartaplus.org 13 May, 2001
the address for this document is http:/www.magnacartaplus.org/civil-liberties/index.htm