It is 8 years now since the lid on the undercover policing scandal was first lifted with the exposure of spycop Mark Kennedy. In that time the Metropolitan Police have publicly recognised, acknowledged and apologised for the abuse of activists and others by undercover police who deceived them into relationships under false identities. In the police’s own words, those relationships were “abusive, deceitful, manipulative and wrong…[they] were a violation of the women’s human rights, an abuse of police power and caused significant trauma…relationships like these should never have happened. They were wrong and were a gross violation of personal dignity and integrity.”

That was a powerful admission. But it did not lead to any proper disclosure by the police of the truth about undercover police and their practices (indeed, some believe that the apology was made in part to avoid doing just that). Crucially, neither has it led to the British State outlawing the abusive practice of deployed undercover police officers deceiving members of the public into intimate relationships. Without that kind of fundamental change, nobody can be certain that they will not be subject to such abuse. Nevertheless, the government does not appear minded to take such a responsible legislative lead.

A recently-launched legal challenge, however, brings renewed hope of change.

The Human Rights Act 2000 enshrines the rights to freedom of assembly, association, expression and private life, and to live free from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and discrimination on grounds of sex.  A new legal case asserts that the actions and behaviours of undercover police officers have breached every one of these fundamental individual rights. If successful, this case may finally and conclusively establish that relationships between spycops and members of the public are unlawful.

The action is brought by Kate Wilson, one of the 8 women who founded PSOOL and brought the case against the Metropolitan Police which resulted in the historic apology above. Kate is a committed political activist who has long fought for social and environmental justice and progressive political change. She was targeted by spycop Mark Kennedy, who deceived her into a two-year relationship. She was also subject to surveillance by a number of other known undercover police officers, including Jim Boyling, “Rod Richardson”, “Marco Jacobs” and “Lynn Watson”.

To pursue a legal case in this way  – pitting oneself as a single individual against the might and resources of police and state – is a daunting undertaking. Amongst other things it requires courage, tenacity, stamina, and a capacity for sustained attention to a great deal of detail. So we – that is, everyone concerned with the freedom to engage in political activity without fear of state abuse – have reason to be grateful that Kate has been willing to take on this particular challenge.

A case such as this can only be brought by an individual whose case has arisen since the introduction of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (which is supposed to govern the powers of intelligence and other public services to carry out surveillance and investigations, and whose legitimacy the case also challenges). Of those who are known to have been affected in this way, Kate’s is currently the only case to clear this hurdle.

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), which hears complaints about the intelligence services, is hearing the case. The IPT often holds hearings in secret, has a record of failure to uphold complaints, and thus looks to be an unpromising arbiter. The police have so far sought to exploit its secretive tendencies by applying for secret hearings (so far denied them) and secret evidence (yet to be ruled on).

Nevertheless, despite daunting odds and familiar police obfuscation and delaying tactics, a little cautious optimism may be justified. A 5-day trial is scheduled for early autumn this year, with police obliged to meet a revised series of deadlines to submit evidence throughout the spring. Further potential developments during the process make this a case to keep a keen eye on. We will be updating regularly as this potentially pivotal legal action gathers pace.

The Human Rights Legal Action – a primer on a critical case