Civil Liberties

What are Civil Liberties?

Civil liberties are basic rights and freedoms granted to citizens of a country through national common or statute law.

They include freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom of assembly, freedom of association and freedom of religious worship.

Such rights and freedoms form the basis of a democratic society and are often denied to those living in a dictatorship. 

Civil liberties are distinct from human rights in that the latter are universal rights and freedoms to which all people throughout the world are deemed to be entitled; however, the two often converge.


In the UK the concept of civil liberties has evolved over several centuries through conventions, legal precedents and legislation.

The Magna Carta, drawn up in 1215, is usually cited as the first piece of legislation to guarantee certain liberties and rights, although its primary purpose at the time was to limit the power of the tyrannical King John by establishing that the monarch was also subject to the rule of law.

Of the original clauses, only three remain valid. The first supports the freedom, rights and liberties of the Church of England; the second confirms the liberties and customs of the City of London and grants liberties and customs to other cities, boroughs and towns. The third remaining clause is the most well-known. Originally written in Latin a modern translation reads:

"No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled; nor will we proceed with force against him except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice."

It is this clause which has been interpreted widely as confirming the right to trial by jury and habeas corpus and its influence is seen in various pieces of subsequent legislation including the United States Constitution.

The Bill of Rights 1689 -"An Act declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject, and settling the Succession of the Crown" – further limited the power of the monarch and established the supremacy of Parliament.

Its clauses include provisions for free parliamentary elections, for parliaments "to be held frequently" and for freedom of speech within Parliament (parliamentary privilege).  In relation to the courts, the bill stated that "excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."

The Bill of Rights, which was drawn up at the time of the accession of William and Mary, remains in force today. Like Magna Carta, its influence can be seen in other legislation relating to the rights and freedoms of individuals, in particular the US Bill of Rights 1789, and also the UN Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly in 1948, and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in force 1953, which includes both human rights and civil liberties.

The UK helped draft and is a signatory to the ECHR (formally the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms) which is a binding international agreement. Signatories undertake to protect rights and freedoms within their own countries. Residents of these countries who have a grievance under the terms of the Convention may take their case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg.

This process, however, has often proved to be extremely lengthy and expensive. Consequently the Labour government introduced the Human Rights Act 1998 (in force 2000) which made rights from the Convention enforceable in UK courts, thus negating the need to petition the ECtHR.

Other recent legislation concerned with protecting rights and freedoms includes the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) which provides members of the public with a right to request access to information held by public authorities or by persons providing services for them.

These public bodies include government departments and local assemblies, local authorities, health trusts and hospitals, schools and colleges, and the police.

The present government has said it is committed to the FOIA, pointing out that the number of public bodies covered was extended in 2011 with work on further extensions ongoing. According to the Ministry of Justice, the FOIA "is key to the Government's wider transparency agenda….and the increased accountability it brings is also important to the Government's work to protect civil liberties."

The Equality Act 2010 is also intended to protect civil liberties by prohibiting discrimination, harassment and victimisation in relation to nine protected characteristics: These are – age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnerships, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation. Unfair treatment is prohibited in the workplace, when providing goods, facilities and services, when exercising public functions, in the disposal and management of premises, in education and by associations (such as private clubs).

Following the May 2010 election, the new Coalition government said it believed the British state had become "too authoritarian" and promised to "implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and roll back state intrusion."

A number of these measures were subsequently included in the Protection of Freedoms Act passed in May 2012 including a new framework for police retention of fingerprints and DNA data, a code of practice for surveillance cameras and a new regime for police 'stop and search'.

The Government also established an independent Commission to investigate the possible creation of a new UK Bill of Rights which would "incorporate and build on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, ensure that these rights continue to be enshrined in UK law, and protect and extend our liberties."

The Commission is to consult with the public, judiciary and devolved administrations and legislatures and report back no later than the end of 2012.


The Labour government elected in 1997 was frequently accused of running a "nanny state", but by the time of the 2010 general election, criticisms had increased to more serious accusations of excessive state interference and state control, infringements of civil liberties and a gradual erosion of the rights of the individual.

One of the main concerns was the enormous number of new criminal offences brought in by Labour. Between 1997 and 2009, 4,289 new criminal offences were created, approximately one for every day the party was in power; and the number continued to increase, rising from 27 new offences a month under Tony Blair, to 33 a month under Gordon Brown.

Several of the new laws were ridiculed for their absurdity; for example it was made an offence to offer for sale a game bird killed on a Sunday or Christmas Day; or to swim in the hull of the Titanic without the permission of a Cabinet minister.

The Liberal Democrats roundly condemned this "frenzied approach to law-making" and accused Labour of having "an obsession with controlling the minutiae of everyday life."

Further concerns about infringement of civil liberties were raised by the passing of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), dubbed the 'snoopers' charter'.

The Act creates a regulatory framework to govern the way public bodies, such as the police and security and intelligence services, use covert techniqes when investigating terrorist threats and other serious crimes, the purpose being to ensure investigatory powers are used in accordance with human rights.

These powers are: the interception of communications; the acquisition of communications data (e.g. billing data); intrusive surveillance (on residential premises/in private vehicles); covert surveillance in the course of specific operations; the use of covert human intelligence sources (agents, informants, undercover officers); and access to encrypted data.

Initially only nine organisations were allowed to use RIPA powers and attempts by the Government in 2002 to extend their use to hundreds more public bodies were defeated by civil liberties campaigners and cross-party MPs. Nevertheless, the number of public bodies using covert surveillance continued to grow.

In 2009 the Liberal Democrats reported that 795 bodies, including all 475 local authorities, were allowed to use RIPA powers, with councils using covert techniques originally designed to prevent terrorism, to "spy" on individuals suspected of trivial offences such as cases of dog fouling or checking whether a person resides in a school catchment area.

A Lords select committee recommended in 2009 that the Government introduce a system of judicial oversight for surveillance carried out by public authorities, and that compensation be made available to those subject to unlawful surveillance. The committee also urged the Government to take steps to ensure that these powers were "only exercised where strictly necessary, and in an appropriate and proportionate manner."

There were numerous other measures introduced by Labour, claimed as necessary to fight the so-called "war on terror", which were seen as a serious threat to civil liberties.

Tony Blair suffered his first defeat as prime minister in 2005 when MPs rejected his call for the pre-charge detention limit for terror suspects to be increased from 14 to 90 days. The move had attracted warnings of a possible infringement of habeas corpus. MPs later agreed on an increased time limit of 28 days. A further attempt in 2008 under Gordon Brown's leadership to increase the time limit to 42 days was thrown out by the Lords.

The introduction of ID cards together with an accompanying national identity register was widely opposed, as was the increased retention of data on the DNA national database, particularly the decision to store the DNA of large numbers of innocent people.

Excessive use of stop and search powers also caused concern. Any police force authorised by the Home Secretary could randomly stop and search any person or vehicle on suspicion of terrorism under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000.

Both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives criticised these measures when in opposition and the new Coalition government came to power in May 2010 promising to "restore the rights of individuals in the face of encroaching state power."

True to their word, ID cards were scrapped and the National Identity Register destroyed.

The use of Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 which allowed police to carry out random stop and search acts – and which had been ruled unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights in January 2010 – was repealed by the Coalition and replaced with a more limited power under the Protection of Freedoms Act introduced in 2012.

Other measures in the Act include reducing the pre-charge detention of terrorist suspects to a maximum of 14 days; requiring schools to obtain parental permission before taking fingerprints of children; and ending the storage of DNA of innocent people.

The Coalition also stated that it was committed to stopping local authority use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 unless it was for serious crime and approved by a magistrate. A review of RIPA was announced by the Home Office in December 2010 and a requirement for local authorities to obtain judicial approval was included in the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012.

However, not all civil liberties concerns have been addressed by the Coalition and the spectre of another 'snoopers' charter' has raised its head in the form of the Draft Communications Data Bill published in June 2012.

The Bill proposes to allow security services access to all communications data – i.e. records of all emails, texts and phone calls – and for communications service providers (CSPs) to collect the data which will be stored for 12 months.

The proposals have attracted widespread criticism from a variety of sources. Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert warned: "The Home Office will have to satisfy Liberal Democrats – and others – that existing safeguards are being strengthened, that any extensions to collection powers really are necessary and are proportionate, and that any changes represent increased rather than weakened protection for civil liberties. If they can’t, then this will simply not pass."

The respected pioneer of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, also expressed concern saying moves by governments to control or spy on the internet "keep me up most at night." In an interview for the Guardian he described plans to routinely record information as "very dangerous".

"It means that there will be information around which could be stolen, which can be acquired through corrupt officials or corrupt operators, and used, for example, to blackmail people in the government or people in the military. We open ourselves out, if we store this information, to it being abused," he warned.

An e-petition against the proposals entitled "Scrap Plans to Monitor all Emails and Web Usage" has already attracted in excess of 10,000 signatures and the human rights organisation Liberty has launched a "say NO to the snoopers' charter" campaign.

Liberty is also campaigning against the Justice and Security Bill published in May 2012 which, amongst other things, would allow national security cases to be heard in closed proceedings – so-called 'secret courts'.

"Designed to keep the press and public in the dark, these proposals will have serious implications for media freedom and the rights of potential victims and their families seeking answers or reparation through the courts or inquest proceedings." Liberty said. "They would not only overturn centuries of common law fair trial protections for those seeking to challenge the actions of the State, but also undermine the vital constitutional principle that no one is above the law, including the Government. "

The right to protest and the policing of protests is another issue which constantly raises questions about infringements of civil liberties, one current bone of contention being so-called 'kettling' where demonstrators are contained within a particular area by the police.

Campaigners claim that kettling stifles legitimate protests, is indiscriminate in that bystanders are often detained with the protestors, and that restricting freedom of movement in this way breaches fundamental rights under the ECHR. However, following a long-running legal challenge brought by protestors involved in a 2001 demonstration, the European Court of Human Rights in March 2012 finally ruled that kettling was lawful.

The ruling was criticised by civil liberties campaigners. But the Ministry of Justice defended the tactic saying: "We support the targeted and proportionate use of containment as a key police tactic to manage risks of violence and disorder at protests and the policing efforts to use containment in a way that minimises the impact on those protesting peacefully."

The Ministry of Justice has also had to defend cuts to legal aid, included in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act passed in May 2012, a move which has provoked outrage from civil liberties campaigners, disability groups, the legal profession and others. Liberty warned that publicly funded legal advice and representation "will be put beyond the reach of vast swathes of the British population" and the Labour peer, Lord Bach, led a Lords rebellion against the cuts

However, the Ministry of Justice defended the cuts, due to be implemented from April 2013, saying the legal aid scheme had expanded considerably since it was established in 1949, putting considerable pressure on the legal aid fund. The MoJ said the reforms would ensure access to public funding "in those cases that really require it" and "protect those most in need of advice and assistance."


United Kingdom: World Democracy Profile
The table below shows the most recent World Democracy Audit scores and rankings achieved by the UK. Lower scores are preferable.

World Democracy Audit overall ranking: range 1-150 ranking 13
Political rights range 1-7 ranking 1
Civil liberties range 1-7 ranking 1
Press freedom range 0-150 ranking 16
Corruption range 0-149 ranking 13

Source: World – 2012


We will implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and roll back state intrusion.

We will introduce a Freedom Bill.
We will scrap the ID card scheme, the National Identity register and the ContactPoint database, and halt the next generation of biometric passports.
We will outlaw the finger-printing of children at school without parental permission.
We will extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency.
We will adopt the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database.
We will protect historic freedoms through the defence of trial by jury.
We will restore rights to non-violent protest.
We will review libel laws to protect freedom of speech.
We will introduce safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation.
We will further regulate CCTV.
We will end the storage of internet and email records without good reason.
We will introduce a new mechanism to prevent the proliferation of unnecessary new criminal offences.
We will establish a Commission to investigate the creation of a British Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in British law, and protects and extends British liberties. We will seek to promote a better understanding of the true scope of these obligations and liberties.

The Coalition: Our programme for government.