undercover police cultivated intimate relationships with activists to spy on radical groups

by Tim Phillips

Does the law allow state agents to develop sexual relationships with the people on whom they intend to gain intelligence? In the UK, six undercover officers cultivated relationships with several women while infiltrating environmental and social justice groups between the mid-1980s and 2010. The relationships ranged from 7 months to many years.

In December 2011, eight of the women brought legal claims against the Metropolitan Police. (A separate case involves a woman who had a child with an undercover officer she believed was a fellow animal rights activist.) According to a press release announcing the legal action,

Through their collective experiences the women have identified a pattern that covers more than two decades of police operations and is therefore indicative of systemic abuse of female political activists involved in a range of different groups. … After the women formed loving relationships with these men, they disappeared when their posting ended, leaving the women to cope with the trauma of not knowing whether or not the person they were in love with would return, not knowing if they should be worried or angry and trying to discover what was real and what was not.

The police sought to have the case heard in a secret court, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), in which complainants cannot see the state’s evidence, have no guaranteed right to an oral hearing, and cannot appeal. Yesterday the High Court in London granted the officers’ application for a secret hearing as to the claims under the Human Rights Act, but rejected their application as to the common law claims (e.g., deceit, negligence, and assault). While the common law claims will not be heard in secret, those claims will now be put on hold pending the verdict of the IPT on the claims under the Human Rights Act.