A dangerous Bill for confidentiality

The nature of the relationship between solicitors and their clients will take on new meaning if the Police Bill goes through parliament in its current guise. Under the proposed provisions, police will be free to bug solicitors during their conferences with clients. But who will authorise this?

After initially proposing that the police should have this responsibility, the government now seems to have reached a compromise of sorts. It looks likely that it will agree that permission should come from a judge in the first instance. If a judge is not available, then the chief constable can give temporary authorisation.

The constitutional implications of this are immense. Common law traditions which define the role of the judiciary and the executive on such issues are being tossed aside. Furthermore, the proposed laws will probably be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Lawyers must be alerted to the dangers which lie ahead if such a dangerous piece of legislation is not challenged on all these vital points. All firms will be affected – from City firms whose international clients may want to go elsewhere if confidentiality is not guaranteed, to high street practitioners which may find that conversations with clients on any subject end up being heard by the wrong people.

Unfortunately, the Labour Party, which might be regarded as the natural guardian of civil liberties, is not feeling particularly bullish about such issues at the moment in these election-charged times.

The Law Society is frantically lobbying on behalf of the profession to ensure that this Bill does not pass in its current format. However, it is not an easy task at a time when issues of law and order are the Achilles' heel of the Labour Party.

But if the legal profession is to retain the confidence of its clients, it is effort which is surely worth making.