Eroded liberties 6


It has been a vital safeguard of English liberties that a subject shall not be detained without trial. The normal time police could hold someone without charging them was 24 hours, with powers to apply for extension to 96 hours. The writ of Habeas Corpus could require the state to produce a prisoner in open court to prove its detention of them was legal. This right has been modified or suspended in national emergencies, including internment in World War II and during the Northern Ireland conflict.

Now, in the name of combating terrorism, the House of Commons has passed a bill allowing suspects to be detained for 42 days without being charged. It means the police can imprison someone for up to 6 weeks without having to show good cause. It runs counter to the liberties enshrined in English law to protect the citizen from arbitrary state power. Although terrorism is given as the pretext, it is not named in the act, nor are the new powers specifically limited to such cases. It should be remembered that powers already granted to resist terrorism have been used to detain a heckler and someone who walked along a designated cycle path. It is also significant that the police and government originally pushed for 90 days, without the caveats built into the 42 day law to appease some critics.

Our laws have hitherto prevented the police from holding people incommunicado, or imprisoning them for long periods without charges or trial for specific offences. In giving the state the ability to do this, yet another vital prop of our liberties has been eroded.