Control orders: what are they and why do they matter?

6 January 2011 by

Updated | The government is soon to reveal the future of control orders, controversial anti-terrorism measure which have been repeatedly found by the courts to infringe human rights. But what are they? And why have they caused such trouble since they were introduced?

What are control orders?

Control orders are an anti-terrorism power which allows the secretary of state to impose strict conditions on a terrorist suspect (the ‘controlee’).

The conditions can include a curfew of up to 16 hours per day, electronic tagging, travel restrictions of a few miles in non-curfew hours, regular reporting to a monitoring company, regular home searches, and strict limits on interpersonal communication. There are sometimes other consequences of the order, such as friends being unwilling to visit them.

So, control orders effectively amount to house arrest. As the name suggests, they allow the government to “control” the lives of a suspect.

By what power?

Control orders are an invention of the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 (‘PTA’)  which came into force in March 2005.

They were introduced after the House of Lords (now the Supreme Court) ruled in the now famous Belmarsh case, that a regime introduced after the September 11 2001 attacks, which allowed the secretary of state to detain a suspected international terrorist with a view to his intended deportation, was incompatible with the right to liberty under the European Convention.

Two conditions must be satisfied for a control order to be granted. By section 2 of PTA, the secretary of state must have “ reasonable grounds for suspecting that the individual is or has been involved in terrorism-related activity” and show that “it is necessary, for purposes connected with protecting members of the public from a risk of terrorism, to make a control order imposing obligations on that individual“.

The conditions which are available under control orders are listed in PTA section 1(4).

So what’s the problem?

As Mr Justice Silber put it in a recent speech on the topic, control orders “seek to resolve conflicts of interest of great importance in constitutional and personal liberty terms“.

The main problem is that the orders are imposed in the early stages of an investigation, and the secretary state need only show “reasonable grounds”  of suspicion to impose one. In an ordinary criminal case, at least a charge would be required to impose such strict conditions, so the orders go far beyond the ordinary powers of the police.

This raises a number of difficult issues. First, the basic conflict between the rights of an individual to freedom against the rights of the state to protect its citizens from terrorism. The security services have long argued that the orders are an important practical means of fighting terrorism, and that due to the extreme effects of a successful terrorist attack, the restrictions on liberty are justified.

However, the counter-argument is that the orders represent a breach of human rights as well as basic principles of common law due process. Put simply, the state must prove its case before a person can have his (all ‘controlees’ thus far have been male) liberty so severely circumscribed.

A second issue which has attracted the attention of the courts is to what extent controlees should know the case against them. On the one hand, knowing the case against you is a basic requirement of a fair trial under article 6 of the European Convention. On the other, the security services have often argued that disclosing sensitive secret evidence in court could itself put lives at risk.

The evidence also often comes from other states’ intelligence services, and, as the head of MI6 put it in a recent speech, intelligence services operate according (somewhat ironically) to the “control principle”, whereby “the service who first obtains the intelligence has the right to control how it is used”. So it is possible that by forcing evidence to be disclosed, the intelligence services are jeopardising relationships with partners.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind is currently looking at the issue of how secret evidence is used in judicial proceedings. This will certainly be an important background element to any reform of the control order scheme.

How is secret evidence dealt with?

Another controversial side-effect of the control order scheme has been the introduction into courts of the “special advocate“.

It is a prerequisite for a control order that prosecution of the subject should not be possible.  In all control order cases, the Government seeks to withhold relevant evidence and/or allegations on the basis that disclosure would be harmful to the public interest.  The control order regime provides a mechanism that purports to allow for this, whereby the secretary of state can disclose the case to a special advocate, a barrister who has security clearance and is acting on behalf of the suspect. The advocate and the judge will see the secret evidence, but not the suspect.

The highly unusual aspect of the special advocate system was (and to an extent, still is) that counsel is unable to take instructions from his or her client, as they will not have seen the secret evidence.

This issue was dealt with in the AF case, in which the House of Lords ruled that in order to guarantee a fair hearing under article 6 of the European Convention the judge must insist in every case that the controlled person is given sufficient information to enable his special advocate effectively to challenge the case that is brought against him.

This may result in the security services having to provide secret or sensitive information to him, or abandon reliance upon that material – which may necessitate dropping the case against him altogether. This happened following the AF case, and the Court of Appeal recently quashed three control orders altogether, leaving the door open for the former-controlees to claim compensation.

Whatever happens to the control order scheme, the courts’ numerous statements on secret evidence have reaffirmed the principle of open justice, and have already been applied in cases involving forced marriages and child protection.

What about the human rights act?

Despite only being imposed on around 50 people since their introduction in 2005, control orders have been regularly reviewed by the courts. The regime has, generally speaking, been found to be human rights compliant, but with a number of significant provisos so as to achieve ECHR compliance (in particular with Article 6 – as explained above, by reference to the AF (No.3) case  – Article 5, and Article 8

The specific conditions of the orders are regularly found by the courts to breach controlees’ human rights, and in particular the right to liberty and/or right to respect for private and family life.

For example, in September 2010 the High Court ruled that a control order which required the “controlee” to relocate and live at an address in Ipswich, away from his family in Crawley, was unlawful.

The Supreme Court made a similar point in June, when it ruled that a control order which placed a man 150 miles away from his family breached his human rights to family life and liberty. The family life aspect tipped the balance for the court.

What next?

The control order scheme is being urgently discussed at the moment as part of a wider anti-terrorism review. It has been regularly reported that the coalition is split along party lines on the issue, with the Liberal Democrats in general and Nick Clegg in particular arguing that the system should be scrapped entirely, and the Conservatives saying it should be retained but modified. In reality, the position may not be as clear as that. The Prime Minister said yesterday that control orders “haven’t been a success” and need a “proper replacement”.

Meanwhile, although deputy prime minister Nick Clegg was supposed to make an announcement on control orders today, this has apparently been put off for at least a week and the annoucement is instead to be made by the home secretary Teresa May.  This may reflect more behind the scenes wrangling.

Whatever replaces control orders is unlikely to insulate them from court scrutiny. It seems that the government is resigned to striking an uneasy balance between liberty and security in anti-terrorism policy, and this is perhaps inevitable given the nature of the threat.  As Lord Phillips put it in the AF case:

The consequences of a successful terrorist attack are likely to be so appalling that there is an understandable wish to support the system that keeps those who are considered to be most dangerous out of circulation for as long as possible. But the slow creep of complacency must be resisted.

Many argue that the last government was responsible for this “slow creep of complacency” on anti-terrorism issues. But despite its early pledge to “reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour Government“, the control order issue shows that the new government is finding it more difficult in practice to balance security with liberty.

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5 comments


  1. Jon says:

    Ian,

    The state’s obligations with respect to the very important ECHR Article 5(1) were abrogated on 21st November 2001 ( http://preview.tinyurl.com/6ymgngc ), with 9/11 being the reason.

    It is noted that ‘an opinion expressed by the Council of Europe, which oversees the implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights, was not impressed by the [UK Gov] legislation or its justification, [passed on 21/11/01].

    Question,
    If a ‘terror suspect’ had been ‘assessed as a senior member of the plot’ & has been on trial but was cleared / ‘acquitted of all charges and formally discharged’ by the judge, should he then be subject to a control order?

    That has happened with Appellant ‘AY’

    The case has Kafkaesque spooks written all over it, not justice.

  2. ObiterJ says:

    I think that it is right that the Home Secretary makes the announcement to Parliament which is in recess until 11th January. The Home Secretary and not Mr Clegg (Dep. PM) is, after all, the responsible Minister.

    It is interesting that so many “reviews” are taking place. Gibson will report (in late 2011) about UK complicity in torture; Rifkind is looking into use of intelligence in ANY legal proceedings (incl. inquests); MacDonald is looking at aspects of the terrorism legislation (incl. control orders) and publication of his report has been delayed with no entirely satisfactory reasons being issued for the delay. Meanwhile, it looks as if Ministers are going to do their own thing anyway. No doubt we may know a little more after Theresa May’s announcement.

    We – the general public – are expected to accept a considerable number of assertions in this area – e.g. control orders are necessary (Lord Carlile); they have actually prevented attacks – (hard to prove that one) – etc. By definition, we are not shown any evidence to support these various assertions. Nevertheless, it would be risible to argue that there is no terrorist risk or even that the risk of an attack is de minimis and given the choice between the previous detention regime (Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001) or Control Orders (Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005) one would have to opt for control orders as the least unpalatable option.

    Much as one instinctively dislikes control orders; the secrecy of SIAC and the “special advocate” system, it has to be said that the UK has been at pains to try to put in place some mechanisms to make the system fairer than it would otherwise be. (Compare with Guantanamo etc].

    I would fully expect that some form of restrictive orders will be retained but with modifications. There is, after all, a respectable case in human rights terms to expect the state to take steps to prevent acts of terrorism. I would also like to see more emphasis on prosecuting those who are involved in terrorism though this seems to be plagued by problems including the “control principle” and the restriction on “intercept evidence.”

    An interesting text on “Terrorism and human rights” is Richard Stone’s “Textbook on Civil Liberties and Human Rights” (OUP). Stone points out (6th ed. Ch.6) that “trading” (or “balancing”) between security and freedom is not really the right approach. The question which should be asked is, given the nature of the threats, what are the minimum steps which are necessary to respond to them.

  3. Zak Golombeck says:

    The more I read comments by proponents of the control order regime, or read the legislation itself, the more I think I am reading a Kafka novella.

  4. S.Legree says:

    Terrorists are killers. Killers take away victim`s human rights.
    Therefore, terrorists have no rights.
    Control them, deport them, preferable execute them,
    but, above all GET RID OF THEM.

  5. Ian Turner says:

    Those who oppose control orders view freedoms in purely ‘negative’/liberalist terms aka civil and political rights. There is a case for the defence of control orders in terms of ‘positive’ human rights by reference to subtantive obligations imposed on the state, especially post 9/11. Ian

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