Rights Briefing

A briefing from Scotland Against Criminalising Communities

SACC offers the following briefing on legal issues facing people who might be approached by police or the intelligence services in connection with terrorism investigations. Anyone, however respectable, may find themselves approached for information in this way, or even arrested. We hope that our briefing will help people to make informed choices in these situations. Our guidance reflects the position as currently understood by lay members of SACC and should not be relied upon for legal purposes. It is essential that anyone concerned over these issues should consult an experienced lawyer.

The Law

  • There is no obligation on members of the public to answer questions put to them by by MI5 officers.
  • Under most circumstances, there is no obligation on members of the public to assist police officers with inquiries. Important exceptions include:
    • If you are stopped at an airport, harbour or other port under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, you are obliged to answer questions put to you by police in order to determine whether you are a terrorist. You could be found guilty of an imprisonable offence if you don't comply with this obligation.
      • Questions about the activities of other people will in most circumstances not fall within the terms of Schedule 7. If you wish to refuse to answer questions that you are not legally required to answer, you should ask to see a lawyer.
      • SACC recommends that you make your answers as brief and as straightforward as possible.
      • Police may ask you to agree to meet them at a later date. This is an attempt to recruit you as an informer. You are not obliged to agree to meet them. If you do agree, you are free to contact them later and say you have changed your mind and you do not wish to meet them. SACC recommends that you ask a lawyer to do this on your behalf.
    • Section 38b of the Terrorism Act 2000 creates a legal obligation to disclose information that you believe might assist in preventing an act of terrorism (Section 38b is an amendment to the Terrorism Act 2000 introduced by the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001). It is extremely rare for charges to be brought under this section.
    • The Terrorism Act 2000 creates an obligation to inform police if information that you obtain in the course of your work leads you to suspect that someone has committed particular kinds of terrorism offence (mainly concerned with the use of money or property for terrorist purposes).
    • If police suspect you of a crime or think you have witnessed a crime, you are legally obliged to give them your name and address.
  • Under almost all circumstances you are entitled to consult a solicitor before answering questions put to you by the police or other authorities.

How terrorism investigations put people at risk

  • Terrorism investigations are often very wide-ranging and target large numbers of people. Innocent links between people may give rise to suspicions of terrorist activity. When you are questioned by police, you do not know what information - accurate or inaccurate - they already hold about you. You do not know how information that you provide may be used.
  • The definition of terrorism in British law is very wide and is open to varying interpretations. Activities previously regarded as legitimate or as minor offences may now be labelled as terrorist, with important consequences for the way they are investigated and for the likely penalties. For a number of offences, recent terrorism legislation sets aside the principle of innocent until proven guilty and in effect makes it necessary for a defendant to prove their innocence.
  • People who have been approached by MI5 officers are often subjected to repeated and problematic attention from MI5, whether or not they initially provided the information requested.
  • People who are not British citizens are particularly vulnerable to pressure.
  • For all these reasons, an ill-considered comment to a police or intelligence officer can have serious consequences that can be very hard to reverse. It can put you at risk of eventual prosecution, and it can can add fuel to an ill-founded investigation.

Our advice

  • Obtain advice from a lawyer experienced in terrorism cases before answering any questions on these matters from police or MI5 officers.
  • Do this even if you have not been detained but have only been asked to provide information. You should tell the officers concerned that you will be doing this, and you should obtain their names and telephone numbers. Do not be drawn into any discussion with the officers.
  • Do not be dissuaded from this by any threats or promises that police or MI5 officers may make.
  • Many people do not obtain legal advice because they are worried that it will be expensive. They are wrong: if you are detained you are entitled to a solicitor free of charge. Sometimes people do not do so because they think that the situation is 'simple', or that consulting a solicitor will 'make things worse'. This is not the case and it is a common error. A solicitor is able to discuss matters calmly with the police, obtain relevant information, advise you as the best course of action to take and keep a note of all that is going on. On many occasions the presence of a solicitor may clear matters up quickly and ensure that the police behave appropriately.
  • You should always feel free to ask police whether you have to answer questions; whether you have to consent to your property being searched; and whether you are under arrest or are free to leave. This is because on some occasions the police may detain you or search you in circumstances where they know they are not entitled to do so but on the basis that you have never raised an objection. However, they may not reveal that to you, unless you ask. In some situations if you say calmly you would rather not answer questions, or rather not have your premises searched, the police may not be able to do so.
  • Remain calm; be courteous. If you become agitated you may be charged with breach of the peace.

Our Views

  • Ordinary politcal activities should be no concern of the police or intelligence services. We urge people not to discuss such activities with the police or intelligence services.
  • We wish the police every success in tackling real crime, especially crimes of violence.
  • We call for the repeal of Britain's terrorism laws. We believe that these laws promote miscarriages of justice, promote a culture of suspicion, divide communities and create conditions that could foster terrorism. We think it would be better for all crimes to be investigated and prosecuted under the ordinary criminal law, with the all the usual safeguards for people who come under suspicion.

Also See