Coronavirus Act 2020: maintaining oversight of investigatory powers

Published on 31 March 2020

The Coronavirus Act 2020 allows the Investigatory Powers Commissioner to appoint temporary Judicial Commissioners and permits the time periods for urgent warrants to be extended.

The Commissioner, Sir Brian Leveson, wrote to the Home Secretary on 26 March requesting that the new powers be exercised. As of today, these powers are now in force. The exercise of the powers will provide contingency cover for the current cohort of Judicial Commissioners to help ensure there is a sufficient number of Commissioners available to review all applications for authorisation in good time. All temporary Commissioners will currently hold high judicial office.

The Investigatory Powers Commissioner, Sir Brian Leveson, said: 

“Judicial Commissioners perform the important function of considering applications for the use of investigatory powers that protect national security and combat serious crime. The new legislation ensures that we are able to continue this role.

“The legislation keeps the robust oversight regime intact, meaning that applications will remain subject to the safeguard of the double-lock process.

“The amendment of the time periods for urgent warrants is a proportionate response to provide greater flexibility for both IPCO and applicant public authorities, in light of the pressures caused by the outbreak of coronavirus.”

Investigatory powers provide intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the capability they need to maintain national security, protect the UK’s economic wellbeing and prevent and investigate serious crime. Applications for the use of investigatory powers are submitted by authorised bodies, as provided for under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016.

Previously, the maximum time allowed for an urgent warrant to be reviewed by a Judicial Commissioner once authorised was three working days, with a duration of five working days before it expires.

The new powers in The Investigatory Powers (Temporary Judicial Commissioners and Modification of Time Limits) Regulations 2020 extend the maximum time allowed for an urgent warrant to be reviewed by a Judicial Commissioner once authorised to nine working days and extend the duration of the urgent warrant to 12 working days.

The ‘double-lock’ refers to the safeguard introduced by the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 requiring warrants to be approved by a Judicial Commissioner in addition to being authorised by a Secretary of State.

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