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Friday, 6 October, 2000, 11:18 GMT 12:18 UK
Human Rights: Are the police prepared?
Former Metropolitan Police Commission Sir Paul Condon at the Lawrence inquiry launch (1999)
Police changed practises after Stephen Lawrence case
In the last in our series on the Human Rights Act, home affairs correspondent Jon Silverman asks whether the police and the prisons have properly prepared for it?

Public authorities which come into contact with people in situations of high tension or sensitivity are particularly vulnerable to challenge under the Human Rights Act.

This is why both the police and prison services have been reviewing their practices to identify those which may not be compatible with the European Convention.

Judges parading before the start of the legal year
Judges: Scrutiny of police action
In the case of the police, each force has designated a human rights "champion" - a senior officer - who has been responsible for supervising an audit of functions.

Those which have caused most concern are covert surveillance, stop and search, the use of firearms and CS spray, and public order policing.

One of the consequences of the Human Rights Act will be an obligation on the police to explain and justify their actions in a way which they have not had to hitherto.

To comply with this, the Use of Firearms Manual and Public Order Manual will be published for the first time. Both make it clear that the police may use force only if it is absolutely necessary.

Changes in covert policing and the use of bugging devices, have been introduced to avoid breaching Article 8 of the Convention on the right to privacy.

Significant changes

Lawyers believe that Article 2, the right to life, will be the basis for a number of significant challenges.

This will not only affect situations where the police take a life - for example by use of firearms - but also deaths in custody, where it may be argued that officers have failed to preserve a life.

And following a landmark judgment by the European Court in Strasbourg in 1998, the police may now be challenged for negligence.

So, for example, a botched murder investigation like that into the killing of Stephen Lawrence, could lead to a successful action for damages.

Lawyers also argue that stop and search powers - regulated under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act - may have to be redrafted because the high number of ethnic minority people stopped in some areas will fall foul of Article 14 which prohibits discriminatory treatment.

Prison service prepares

The prison service is also braced for a spate of challenges, aware that it has already had to change a number of practices and policies following defeats at Strasbourg.

A prison officer locks a cell
Prisons: What is inhuman treatment?
Indeed, it won't have to wait long for the first test.

A convicted armed robber, Rifat Mehmet, is bringing one of the first cases in the High Court action, arguing that he was subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment while being held in a special unit for disruptive prisoners.

The prison service is arguing that the circumstances of his detention were proportionate to the risk he posed - which may well be a successful defence.

But inmates held a long way from their homes who bring actions under Article 8, guaranteeing respect for family life, may have a case which is harder to resist.

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