BY Steve Peers

Over two hundred years ago, British philosopher Jeremy Bentham devised the concept of the ‘Panopticon’: a prison designed so that a jailer could in principle watch any prisoner at any time. His theory was that the mere possibility of constant surveillance would induce good behaviour in prison inmates. In recent years, his idea for a panopticon has become a form of shorthand for describing developments of mass surveillance and social control.

The EU’s forays in this area began with the creation of the Schengen Information System (SIS) in the 1990s. The SIS is a well-known EU-wide database containing enormous amounts of information used by policing, immigration and criminal law authorities.

Until now, the UK has not had any access to the SIS. But this week, the EU Council finally approved the UK’s participation in the System, thereby linking the EU’s most iconic database with the intellectual home of the panopticon theory. What are the specific consequences and broader context of this decision?


The main purpose of the Schengen system is to abolish internal border checks between EU Member States, as well as some associated non-EU States.  At the moment, the full Schengen rules apply to all EU Member States except the UK, Ireland, Cyprus, Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia. Those rules also apply to four associates: Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein.

All of the Member States are obliged ultimately to become part of the Schengen system, except for the UK and Ireland. Those two Member States negotiated an exemption in the form of a special Protocol at the time when the Schengen rules (which originated in theSchengen Convention, ie a treaty drawn up outside the EU legal order) were integrated into the EU legal system, as part of the Treaty of Amsterdam (in force 1999).

The UK and Ireland are not entirely excluded from the Schengen system. In fact, they negotiated the option to apply to join only some of the Schengen rules if they wished. Their application has to be approved by the Council, acting unanimously. The UK and Ireland essentially chose to opt in to the Schengen rules concerning policing and criminal law, including the SIS, but not the rules concerning the abolition of internal border controls and the harmonisation of rules on external borders and short-term visas.

The UK’s application to this end was approved in 2000 (see Decision here), and Ireland’s was approved in 2002 (see Decision here). But in order to apply each Decision in practice, a separate subsequent Council decision was necessary, because the Schengen system cannot be extended before extensive checks to see whether the new participant is capable of applying the rules in practice.  On that basis, most of the Schengen rules which apply to the UK have applied from the start of 2005 (see Decision, after later amendments, here). The exception is the rules on the SIS, which the UK was not then ready to apply. After spending considerable sums trying to link to the SIS, the UK gave up trying to do so, on the basis that the EU was anyway planning to replace the SIS with a second-generation system (SIS II). There’s a lot of further background detail in the House of Lords report on the UK’s intention to join the SIS (see here), on which I was a special advisor. (Note that Ireland does not apply any of the Schengen rules in practice yet).

It took ages for the EU to get SIS II up and running, and it finally accomplished this task by April 2013 (see Decision here). The UK had planned to join SIS II shortly after it became operational, but this was complicated by the process of opting out of EU criminal law and policing measures adopted before the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon, and simultaneously opting back in to some of them again, on December 1st 2014 (see discussion of that process here). This included an opt back in to the SIS rules.

Once that particular piece of political theatre concluded its final act, the EU and the UK returned to the business of sorting out the UK’s opt in to SIS II in practice. This week’sdecision completed that process, giving the UK access to SIS II data starting from March 1st. The UK can actually use that data, and enter its own data into the SIS, from April 13th.


What exactly does participation in the SIS entail? The details of the system are set out in the 2007 Decision which regulates the use of SIS II for policing and criminal law purposes. There are also separate Regulations governing the use of SIS II for immigration purposesand giving access to SIS II data for authorities which register vehicles. The former Regulation provides for the storage of ‘alerts’ on non-EU citizens who should in principle be denied a visa or banned from entry into the EU, while the latter Regulation aims to ensure that vehicles stolen from one Member State are not registered in another one. The UK participates in the latter Regulation, but not the former, since it could only have access to Schengen immigration alerts if it fully participated in the Schengen rules on the abolition of internal border controls. On current plans, this will happen when hell freezes over.

The SIS II Decision provides for sharing ‘alerts’ on five main categories of persons or things: persons wanted for arrest for surrender or extradition purposes (mainly linked to the European Arrest Warrant); missing persons; persons sought to assist with a judicial procedure; persons and objects who should be subject to discreet checks or specific checks (ie police surveillance); and objects for seizure or use as evidence in criminal proceedings. There are also rules on the exchange of supplementary information between law enforcement authorities after a ‘hit’. For instance, if the UK authorities find that a European Arrest Warrant has been issued for a specific person, they could ask for further details from the authority which issued it.

On the other hand, the SIS does not, as is sometimes thought, provide for a basis for sharing criminal records or various other categories of criminal law data, although the EU has set up some other databases or information exchange systems dealing with such other types of data. (On criminal records in particular, see my earlier blog post here). The main point of setting up the second-generation system was to extend the SIS to new Member States (although in the end a new system wasn’t actually necessary for that purpose), and to provide for new functionalities such as storing fingerprints, which will likely be put into effect in the near future.

In practice, the UK’s participation in SIS II is likely to result in the Crown Prosecution Service receiving more European Arrest Warrants (EAWs) to process, and in more efficient processing of EAWs which the UK has issued to other Member States. It will also be easier, for instance, to check on whether a car or passport stolen in the UK has ended up on the continent, or vice versa.

Broader context

As noted already, while the UK is only now joining the SIS, the System has been around for many years, and has proved to be the precursor of many EU measures in this field. Indeed, as EU surveillance measures go, the SIS turned out to be a ‘gateway drug’: the friendly puff that led inexorably to the crack den of the data retention Directive.

Of course, interferences with the right to privacy can be justified on the basis of the public interest in enforcement of criminal law and ensuring public safety – if the interference is proportionate and in accordance with the law. Compared to (for instance) the data retention Directive and the planned passenger name records system, the SIS is highly targeted, focussing only on those individuals involved in the criminal law process, or police surveillance, or banned from entry from the EU’s territory. The legitimacy of the system therefore depends upon the accuracy and legality of the personal data placed in to it, and the connected data protection rules. On this point, the EU and national data protection supervisors have reported that many data subjects do not even know about the data held on them in SIS II, and they have produced a guide to help them with accessing their data in the system.

There’s an inevitable tension between the EU’s goal to set the world’s highest data protection standards, on the one hand, while also developing multiple huge databases, information exchange systems and surveillance laws, on the other.  It’s as if the brains of the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham and the libertarian John Stuart Mill were both battling for control of the same body – forcing it to draw up plans for the Panopticon at the same time as it was storming the Bastille. If this tension manifested itself in fiction, it would probably take the form of a comedy about a vegetarian butcher, or a virgin porn star. But the need to ensure that measures to protect our security do not remove all our liberty is not a laughing matter.


*This blog post is linked to ongoing research on the upcoming 4th edition of EU Justice and Home Affairs Law (forthcoming, OUP).


Image credit: nytimes.com

Barnard & Peers: chapter 25

Posted by Steve Peers at 23:48 No comments:

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Labels: criminal law, data protection, databases, opt-outs, right to privacy, Schengen, Schengen Information System, United Kingdom

Friday, 6 February 2015

Rights, remedies and state immunity: the Court of Appeal judgment in Benkharbouche and Janah


Steve Peers

Yesterday’s important judgment in Benkharbouche v Sudan and Janah v Libya by the Court of Appeal raised important issues of public international law, the ECHR and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and demonstrated the relationship between them in the current state of the British constitution. The case involved two domestic workers bringing employment law complaints against the respective embassies of Sudan and Libya, which responded to the complaints by claiming state immunity, based on a UK Act of Parliament (the State Immunity Act) which transposes a Council of Europe Convention on that issue.

The question is whether invoking state immunity for these employment claims amounted to a breach of human rights law, given that Article 6 of the ECHR (the right to a fair trial) guarantees access to the courts, according to the case law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). In turn, this raised issues of EU law, given that Article 47 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights likewise guarantees the right to a fair trial, and some of the claims concerned EU law issues (the race discrimination and working time Directives). (Other claims, such as for ordinary wages and unfair dismissal, were not linked to EU law). The two cases didn’t concern human trafficking or modern slavery, although sometimes embassies are involved in such disputes too. But they would be relevant by analogy to such disputes, and there would also be a link to EU law in such cases, since there is an EU Directive banning human trafficking, which the UK has opted in to.

The Court of Appeal, essentially following the prior judgment of the Employment Appeal Tribunal, made a careful study of recent ECtHR case law, concluding that state immunity could no longer be invoked against all employment law claims, but only against those claims concerning core embassy staff. This could not apply to domestic workers; Ms. Janah’s tasks did not involve (for instance) shooting any British policewomen.

But what was the remedy for this breach of human rights principles? At lower levels, the tribunals had been powerless to rule on the claims for breach of the ECHR, since the UK’sHuman Rights Act awards the power to issue a ‘declaration of incompatibility’ that an Act of Parliament breaches the ECHR to higher courts only. So the Court of Appeal was the first court that could issue such a declaration, and it did so in this case. (The Court concluded that it could not ‘read down’ the relevant clauses in the State Immunity Act to interpret them consistently with the ECHR).

However, as compared to the effect of EU law, even a declaration of incompatibility with the ECHR is relatively weak, given that the potential remedy for a breach of EU law is the disapplication of national law, even Acts of Parliament if necessary, by the national courts. So the Court of Appeal also ruled that the relevant provisions of the State Immunity Acthad to be disapplied, to the extent that they were applied as a barrier to the claims based on EU law. On this point, the Court was following the Employment Appeal Tribunal, which had also ruled to disapply the Act, given that any level of national court or tribunal has the power to disapply an act of parliament if necessary to give effect to EU law.

If I had a pound for every law student who has confused the remedies in UK law for the breach of EU law with the remedies for the breach of the ECHR, I would be very rich indeed. Fortunately, the facts of this case easily demonstrate the distinction between them. Only the higher courts could even contemplate issuing a declaration of incompatibility with the ECHR; and the remedy of disapplication of the Act of Parliament is obviously stronger than the declaration of incompatibility, allowing the case to proceed on the merits (as far as it relates to EU law) rather than having to wait for Parliament to change the law in order to do so. And equally, the case shows the importance of the requirement that a case has to be linked to EU law in order for the Charter to apply: only the race discrimination and working time claims benefit from the disapplication of provisions of the Act of Parliament, and so only those claims can proceed to court as things stand.

From an EU law perspective, the most interesting point examined by the Court of Appeal was the application of the ‘horizontal direct effect’ of Charter rights, ie the application of EU law against private parties (since non-EU States aren’t bound by EU law as States, the court assimilated them to private parties). In its judgment last year in AMS (discussedhere), the CJEU distinguished between those Charter rights which could give rise to a challenge against national law based on the principle of supremacy of EU law, and those Charter rights which could not, since they were too imprecise to base a free-standing Charter claim upon. The right to non-discrimination on grounds of age fell within the former category, whereas the right of workers to be consulted and informed fell within the latter category. (Note that the CJEU case law classifies this as an application of the principle of supremacy, not horizontal direct effect, although the final outcome is the same no matter how the principle is classified, at least in cases like these).

The Court of Appeal reaches the conclusion that Article 47 of the Charter is also a provision which is precise enough to be used to challenge national legislation. That’s an important point, since Article 47 is a far-reaching and frequently invoked provision, and applies not just to state immunity issues but to many broader issues concerning access to the courts (including legal aid) and effective remedies.  For that reason, this judgment is an important precedent for national courts across the European Union faced with challenges to national laws based on Article 47 of the Charter, although of course it doesn’t formally bind any court besides the lower courts of England and Wales.

The Court didn’t need to rule on whether the substantive Charter rights raised by these cases would have the effect of disapplying national law, since it wasn’t ruling on the merits of the cases, but only on the issue of access to court. If it were ruling on the substantive issues, it would seem obvious that race discrimination claims have the same strong legal effect as age discrimination claims, as both claims are based on the same provision of the Charter (Article 21). However, claims based on breach of Article 31 of the Charter (the working time provision) might not have that strong legal effect. Indeed, an Advocate-General’s opinion in the pending case of Fennoll has concluded as much.

Furthermore, the social rights in the Charter (such as the rights set out in Article 31) are subject to a special rule in the Protocol to the EU Treaties which attempts to limit the effect of the Charter in the UK and Poland. The CJEU ruled in its NS judgment that this Protocol does not generally disapply the Charter in the UK, but it did not then rule if the Protocol might nonetheless affect the enforceability of social rights. Given that yesterday’s judgment was about Article 47 of the Charter, not about a substantive social right, it was not necessary for the Court of Appeal to grasp this nettle either.


Barnard & Peers: chapter 9, chapter 20

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