How and why have governments restricted civil liberties in recent years?

The civil liberties that we have and the ways in which governments have been seen to undermine them regularly feature as the basis for questions in both Unit 2 (The Judiciary) and Unit 3 (Law and Order) exam papers.  I have written about a few restrictions on civil liberties below, but you may wish to consider how far restrictions have become necessary, especially in view of the threats to public safety generated by terrorist activity.


One way in which governments have restricted civil liberties is by undermining the right to a trial by jury, a fundamental feature of the rule of law.  The Justice and Security Act of 2013 has aroused considerable controversy as it allows for ‘closed material proceedings’ which means that in the trial of terror suspects and serious criminals, the accused are not present, nor are their lawyers, the press or the public. The accused are unable to question or challenge evidence or even find out why they lost.  The government argues that this is necessary to ensure continued co-operation with foreign intelligence agencies, information from which is dependent on the promise of confidentiality. Many of the most serious terrorist plots in the UK in the past decade have had significant links abroad, so foreign material is often vital for the protection of the UK.

The right to privacy is another civil liberty that governments have undermined in recent years.  The Investigatory Powers Act of 2016 has been criticised for the broad powers of data interception and surveillance powers given to the police.  Communications firms – such as broadband or mobile phone providers – are compelled to hold a year’s worth of communications data.  The current Conservative government introduced this legislation in the fight against organised criminals who exploit technology to commit serious crime such as cyber fraud.  Ministers also argue that the bulk retention of data allows the security services to build a more effective case against individuals suspected of terror-related activities.

It can also be argued that governments in recent years have undermined individual rights to freedom from inhumane and degrading treatment.  In 2015 the Conservatives implemented changes to cut support payments to asylum seekers who are awaiting an initial decision on their refugee claim.  This has significantly impacted asylum seekers with children; for example, the amount a single parent with one child receives a week is £73.90, down from £96.90 before the change was introduced in 2015.  Since such asylum seekers are not allowed to work, the government’s actions have been criticised for allowing families to plunge into poverty.  The change clearly reflects the government’s cost cutting impulses and can be understood in the context of economic depression and austerity in other areas of public spending.


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