The Law Society today called for changes to the laws governing telecommunications interception following the release of documents apparently confirming that the intelligence services have been eavesdropping on lawyers’ client communications.

Campaign group Reprieve said the government had been forced to release the existence of secret policies showing that Government Communications Headquarters (pictured) and the security service MI5 have for years advised staff that they may ‘target the communications of lawyers’, and use legally privileged material ‘just like any other item of intelligence’.

The disclosures relate to a case brought in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) by the families of Libyans who are alleged to have been subjected to rendition and torture in a joint operation between the US and UK security services.

The al-Saadi and Belhadj families allege that, by intercepting privileged communications between them and Reprieve and solicitors Leigh Day, the government has infringed their right to a fair trial in High Court litigation over the 2004 renditions. 

Reprieve said it is concerned that government lawyers involved in the High Court case may have seen confidential communications between the families and their legal team.

The documents disclosed show that MI5 put in place barriers to stop officials viewing confidential lawyer-client information only in January this year – once the IPT claim was already underway and a judicial review was threatened – ‘while MI6 has almost no guidance for its officers on the interception and use of legally privileged material’.

Richard Stein, partner at Leigh Day, said: ‘After many months’ resistance, the security services have now been forced to disclose the policies which they claim are in place to protect the confidential communications between lawyers and their clients. We can see why they were so reluctant to disclose them. 

‘They highlight how the security services instruct their staff to flout these important principles in a cavalier way. We hope the tribunal will tell the government in no uncertain terms that this conduct is completely unacceptable.’

A Law Society spokesperson said: ‘The absence of explicit protection for legal professional privilege in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) has been of long-standing concern to the Law Society and we have raised our concerns with the Home Office. The documents released in this case before the IPT illustrate the inadequacy of the existing legislative framework.

‘We hope they will be fully taken into account by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation in considering the case for amending or replacing RIPA.’