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Last updated 22 Mar 2021
CIVIL LIBERTIES are the freedoms that we have under the law. In the UK the individual is presumed to be able to do anything not actually prohibited by law. So we assume that we have, for example, freedom of speech and freedom of the Press. This means that we can say or write what we like, subject only to laws of libel, slander and incitement. Or that we have freedom of association, which means that we can form or join whatever parties, trade unions, clubs and pressure groups we see fit. Furthermore, we have freedom of movement, which means that a citizen can travel, reside in and work in any part of the state within the limits of respect for the liberty and rights of others.
In the UK, the judiciary has a role as a restraint on government and a protector of civil liberties. It can exercise Judicial review, telling government its actions are illegal (e.g. 2010 when the Treasury froze the assets of people suspected of being terrorists, which was ruled ultra vires – beyond the Government’s authority). It can order acquittals if it seems that to proceed would violate natural justice (e.g. 2008: The Court of Appeal quashed the terrorism convictions of several Muslims who had downloaded material from jihadist websites, because there was no evidence that the individuals had acted on that material).
However, the judiciary has many limitations on its power. They have to wait until cases are brought to them, the grounds for ruling against government in a judicial review are quite narrow, they cannot overturn Acts of Parliament as Parliament is sovereign, and judgements can be challenged on appeal, including to the European Court of Justice or the House of Lords (e.g. 2008 decision that the Serious Fraud Office shouldn’t have dropped an investigation into bribes paid by BAE). Judges have also sometimes been reluctant to challenge the government, particularly on national security grounds (2009 case of a man tortured in US custody in which the US government wouldn’t release papers – the judiciary didn’t force the UK government to release the papers so as not to jeopardise intelligence cooperation with the US. Also, judges have been known make mistakes (e.g. Nicholas Van Hoogstraten case summing up 2002).