Civil Liberties and Security in Great Britain

John Wadham: Defender of Rights


In the wake of Sept. 11, governments across Europe adopted far-reaching laws, giving police greater authority to arrest suspected terrorists. But when Britain passed such legislation and began imprisoning people without charge, John Wadham decided things had gone too far.

As director of Liberty, a British civil-rights organization, John Wadham, 50, had a busy year. Last winter, when the Anti-Terrorism, Crime, and Security Act, which allows foreign terrorist suspects to be jailed without charge or trial unless they can find another country to take them in, came before Parliament, Wadham served on the front lines in opposition to the law. 

Despite Wadham’s objections, the law passed and, within days, 11 foreigners were placed in maximum-security prisons. While two volunteered for deportation, nine claimed they had nowhere to go and remained behind bars.

But Wadham did not give up. When lawyers representing those detained initiated a legal suit, Liberty, with Wadham at its helm, intervened on their behalf. 

This was not Wadham’s first big civil-rights case. He has brought such cases to the European Commission of Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights, and Britain’s domestic courts. He has also served on Britain’s Human Rights Task Force and has trained public officials on civil rights.

Wadham did not always think human-rights law was his calling. As a student in the 1970s, he studied mathematics briefly before transferring to the London School of Economics to read sociology. Only after spending time as a social worker did he decide to make the transition to law. “When I was a social worker I was concerned to ensure that my clients were not...evicted or wrongfully convicted,” Wadham told WPR. “It was this perspective that created a desire to understand human rights in more detail.”

Wadham took a job as a legal adviser in a law center and, at 37, finally qualified as a solicitor. “I decided to qualify partly because I thought I could fight more effectively for my clients, and partly because it was a challenge and looked like fun,” he has explained.

With the Anti-Terrorism, Crime, and Security case, Wadham says he had “real challenge” and “some” fun. He certainly was effective. On July 30, a Special Immigration Appeals Commission found that discriminating between nationals and foreigners, as the act did, was “discriminatory,” “unlawful,” and a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights—an argument that Wadham and his team had introduced. Although the suspects remain in jail, Wadham has called the ruling “a huge victory.” He is probably right. As the post-Sept. 11 legal landscape is restructured across Europe, Wadham’s triumph will almost certainly have an effect far beyond Britain’s borders.