Background

Investigatory Powers Act

The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 regulates the use of surveillance by the State via methods including the interception of communications, the acquisition and examination of bulk data sets and the use of covert human intelligence sources (“CHIS”). It was introduced as a means of updating the legal basis upon which law enforcement and the intelligence agencies conduct surveillance, in part to reflect technological advances, and to enhance oversight and transparency.

Investigatory powers may be used only for specific purposes, including the detection or prevention of serious crime, for reasons of national security, if there is a threat to life or to protect the economic wellbeing of the UK.

Examples of the investigatory powers that the Act governs:

  • The interception of communications, e.g. listening to telephone calls
  • Equipment interference, e.g. covertly downloading the contents of a mobile phone
  • Obtaining communications data, e.g. the identification of the sender and recipient of an email (but not its content)
  • Acquiring internet connection records, e.g. tracking which websites have been visited by internet users
  • The retention of material obtained via the above methods
  • The use of CHIS

Some powers, such as interception and equipment interference, can be exercised in bulk. Bulk powers allow for the collection of large volumes of data which largely relate to individuals who are not of intelligence interest but which are likely to include data relating to terrorists and/or those involved in serious crime. This data can then be examined for information relating to individuals or activities of concern. Bulk powers may only be used by the security and intelligence agencies.

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The Act created a system of independent oversight by the newly created office of Investigatory Powers Commissioner, supported by other Judicial Commissioners (all of whom are serving or retired members of the senior judiciary).

Use of the most intrusive investigatory powers must be authorised by the Judicial Commissioners under the so-called “double lock” mechanism introduced by the Act. This is a mechanism requiring, in all but urgent cases, that a decision of the Secretary of State to issue an interception warrant be approved by a Judicial Commissioner.

Various provisions in the Act, in particular those permitting mass data collection, have been subject to legal challenge on the grounds that they amount to a violation of individuals’ privacy rights (Article 8 ECHR) and freedom of expression (Article 10 ECHR). The Act has been dubbed “the Snooper’s Charter” by various civil liberties groups.

In Big Brother Watch v UK (App nos 58170/13, 62322/14 and 24960/15) (GC) [2021] ECHR 439, the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR found that the pre-IPA 2016 regime for the bulk interception of electronic cross-border communications by the intelligence agencies did not contain adequate safeguards against abuses of power.

In R (National Council of Civil Liberties (Liberty)) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2023] Civ 926, the Court of Appeal considered a challenge to the revised regime, as set out in the IPA 2016 and in accordance with certain proposed amendments to the Act. It held that Parts 3 – 7 of the Act were compatible, in all but one respect, with Articles 8 and 10 and EU retained law. The exception were the arrangements governing the transfer of material from bulk personal datasets to authorities in other states: these were not compatible with Article 10 because the safeguards governing such transfers were not contained in any legislation, code or publicly available policy or other document. The Court of Appeal remitted to the Divisional Court for determination the question of whether the provisions for bulk equipment interference warrants were compatible with art.10, given that there was no provision for prior independent authorisation of the examination of confidential journalistic material and information capable of identifying a journalist’s sources.

To find out more about how our team of barristers can advise on your issue, please contact the clerks.

For more information please contact our clerks.

Call +44 (0) 20 7410 2000 or click here to email

Investigatory Powers Act Barristers

King's Counsel

Jason Beer KC

Call 1992 | Silk 2011

Fiona Barton KC

Call 1986 | Silk 2011

Anne Studd KC

Call 1988 | Silk 2012

Francesca Whitelaw KC

Call 2003 | Silk 2023

Juniors (10+ years)

Andrew Waters

Call 1987

Russell Fortt

Call 1999

Charlotte Ventham

Call 2001

Beatrice Collier

Call 2004

Mark Thomas

Call 2006

Georgina Wolfe

Call 2006

Jonathan Dixey

Call 2007

Emma Price

Call 2007

Saara Idelbi

Call 2008

Robert Cohen

Call 2009

Robert Talalay

Call 2010

Alex Ustych

Call 2010

Catriona Hodge

Call 2012

Aaron Moss

Call 2013

Juniors (under 10 years)

John Goss

Call 2015

Peter Laverack

Call 2015

Aimee Riese

Call 2016

David Messling

Call 2017

Jennifer Wright

Call 2018

Conor Monighan

Call 2019

Paige Jones

Call 2021

Jack Palmer

Call 2022

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