Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 has courted much controversy since its introduction to the law in England and Wales. Much of the controversy surrounded figures released by the Ministry of Justice suggesting that fewer that 0.1% of those stopped and searched under this power were arrested (never mind charged and convicted) for a terrorism related offence. Another statistic, also from the Ministry of Justice, causing controversy around the power was that a person was up to four times as likely to be searched under s.44 if they were of Asian or Black ethnic origin. Figures clearly showing that the power was being abused and over used.
The power has frequently been used against peaceful protestors including the octogenarian holocaust survivor Walter Wolfgang who was unlawfully ejected from the Labour Party conference in 2005 after heckling the then Foreign Secretary (now Justice Secretary) Jack Straw.
More controversy arose when it was revealed that the whole of the Greater London Area had been designated under s.44 for “Stop and Search” without suspicion on a rolling basis since 2001 – at time this had meant a significant length of time.
On Tuesday 12 January 2010 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that s.44 was unlawful. This doesn’t strike the law down and s.44 powers are still available to the Police, however, in the longer term it will probably mean that the section will be repealed (or at least amended). This is a good decision by the ECtHR. It’s far too wide ranging a power and infringes far too much upon the rights and freedoms of innocent individuals. I return to one of my favourite quotes when it comes down to the curtailment of civil liberties, freedoms and human rights:
“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Benjamin Franklin, 1759