The British government has admitted that its practice of spying on confidential communications between lawyers and their clients was a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
Details of the controversial snooping emerged in November: lawyers suing Blighty over its rendition of two Libyan families to be tortured by the late and unlamented Gaddafi regime claimed Her Majesty's own lawyers seemed to have access to the defense team's emails.
The families' briefs asked for a probe by the secretive Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), a move that led to Wednesday's admission.
"The concession the government has made today relates to the agencies' policies and procedures governing the handling of legally privileged communications and whether they are compatible with the ECHR," a government spokesman said in a statement to the media, via the Press Association.
"In view of recent IPT judgments, we acknowledge that the policies applied since 2010 have not fully met the requirements of the ECHR, specifically Article 8. This includes a requirement that safeguards are made sufficiently public."
The guidelines revealed by the investigation showed that MI5 – which handles the UK's domestic security – had free reign to spy on highly private and sensitive lawyer-client conversations between April 2011 and January 2014.
MI6, which handles foreign intelligence, had no rules on the matter either until 2011, and even those were considered void if "extremists" were involved. Britain's answer to the NSA, GCHQ, had rules against such spying, but they too were relaxed in 2011.
"By allowing the intelligence agencies free rein to spy on communications between lawyers and their clients, the Government has endangered the fundamental British right to a fair trial," said Cori Crider, a director at the non-profit Reprieve and one of the lawyers for the Libyan families.
"For too long, the security services have been allowed to snoop on those bringing cases against them when they speak to their lawyers. In doing so, they have violated a right that is centuries old in British common law. Today they have finally admitted they have been acting unlawfully for years."
Crider said it now seemed probable that UK snoopers had been listening in on the communications over the Libyan case. The British government hasn't admitted guilt, but it has at least acknowledged that it was doing something wrong – sort of.
"It does not mean that there was any deliberate wrongdoing on the part of the security and intelligence agencies, which have always taken their obligation to protect legally privileged material extremely seriously," the government spokesman said.
"Nor does it mean that any of the agencies' activities have prejudiced or in any way resulted in an abuse of process in any civil or criminal proceedings. The agencies will now work with the independent Interception of Communications Commissioner to ensure their policies satisfy all of the UK's human rights obligations."
So that's all right, then. ®