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An overview of Civil Liberties legislation since 1900

 

by Matthew Robb

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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]

Index

Why should anyone care?
What are civil liberties?
Timeline of civil liberties legislation

Bibliography and sources

Why should anyone care?

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.

What are civil liberties?

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. return to indexI have added a couple more from Freedom, the Individual and the Law, by Geoffrey Robertson.

These give roughly the following four major clusters:

Criminal Justice

Basic freedoms

Freedom of information

Communications and privacy

Police powers and personal liberty Freedom of speech    
Fair trial Freedom of association    
Prisons Freedom of assembly    
  Freedom of movement    
  Freedom from discrimination    

The table below includes the history of the steady, continual disarming of the UK population.

Timeline of Civil Liberties legislation


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Year Legislation/Case Affected liberty Notes
       
1900      
1901      
1902      
1903 Pistols Act   Requirement to obtain a gun licence before purchase of a firearm with a barrel shorter than 9 inches.
1904      
1905      
1906      
1907      
1908      
1909      
1910      
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]
1912      
1913      
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 [1]. 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’. ”[2]to more of the timeline
1915      
1916      
1917      
1918      
1919      
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.
1921      
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.
[Full notes]


1923      
1924      
1925      
1926      
1927      
1928     to more of the timeline
1929      
1930      
1931      
1932      
1933      
1934      
1935      
1936      
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.
1938      
1939      
1940      
1941      
1942
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 in 1940.

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). [1]
1944      
1945      
1946     Self-defence no longer considered a valid reason to own a gun.
1947      
1948      
1949     to more of the timeline
1950      
1951      
1952      
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".
1954      
1955      
1956      
1957      
1958      
1959      
1960      
1961      
1962      
1963      
1964      
1965 Firearms act   Control of shotguns with barrels shorter than 24 inches.
1966      
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.
1968      
1969      
1970      
1971      
1972      
1973     to more of the timeline
1974      
1975      
1976      
1977      
1978      
1979      
1980      
1981      
1982      
1983      
1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (1984) Police powers and personal liberty Arrest
Detention
  Day 1
Day 2/3
Day 3/4

Questioning
Representation

[Full notes]

1985      
1986 Public Order Act (1986)   Attacks on freedom of assembly.
1987     to more of the timeline
1988 Firearms (Amendment) Act  

• Banned semiautomatic and pump-action centrefire rifles, military weapons firing explosive ammunition, and short shotguns that had magazines.
• Lifted pump-action and self-loading rifles into the Prohibited category.
• Registration and secure storage of weapons held on shotgun certificates required, and
• shotguns with more than a 2+1 capacity now require a Firearms certificate.
• The law also introduced new restrictions on shotguns, although rifles in .22 rimfire and semi-automatic pistols were unaffected.
[Hungerford massacre used as an excuse.]

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.

Proscribed organisations
Exclusion
Arrest and detention.

[Full notes]

1990      
1991      
1992      
1993      
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.
• Part IV, Sections 54-59, gave the police greater rights to take and retain intimate body samples.
• Part IV, Section 60, which increased police powers of unsupervised “stop and search”, including in sub-section (6), “If in the course of a search under this section a constable discovers a dangerous instrument or an article which he has reasonable grounds for suspecting to be an offensive weapon, he may seize it.” This has been interpreted to include knives or many other items, including walking sticks, or other vaguely pointy items.
• In Part 5, the Act also criminalised previously civil offences such as trespass and nuisance on land.

1995      
1996      
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
[Dunblane massacre used as an excuse.]

1998      
1999      
2000

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.
summary and commentary

full text of the Act

  Terrorism Act, 2000   commentary
  Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, 2000    commentary
2001      
2002      
2003      
2004      
2005      
2006      
2007     return to index
  


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Bibliography and sources

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

OUP, 0198256655
UK: 59.02, USA: $85.00
(Available May 2000)

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 Books, 014024753X
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 Limited, 1859411991
£21.95
  Fenwick is senior lecturer in law at the University of Durham  
5. Fisk, Robert

Pity the Nation : The Abduction of Lebanon

3rd revised ed., Oxford Paperbacks, 0192801309 £7.99
(Available September 2001)
Out of print in the USA

 

I am (perhaps naively) surprised at how little literature there is on these subjects that is not arcane legal stuff. return to indexEven the first four references continually refer to each other.

Matthew Robb


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© magnacartaplus.org 13 May, 2001

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