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Our View: Phone-tapping law amendments do not serve public good

Attorney-General Giorgos Savvides

The ease with which deputies amend government bills at the legislature never ceases to amaze. They never seem to think through the consequences of the amendments, as seems to have been the case with the phone-tapping law. After years of government attempts to secure a majority in the legislature to vote through the bill it was finally passed last Friday, but two amendments proposed by an Edek deputy that were approved by the majority have raised fears they would make the law ineffective.

As a result, the President is considering sending the law back to the legislature, although he has sought the opinion of the attorney-general before taking this step. The main problem was created by the addition of the words “serious cause” to the standard “probable cause” for a judge to be satisfied and approve a surveillance application by police. The reason Edek deputy Costis Efstathiou decided to add “serious cause” was apparently to limit abuses of the law, but the more likely result was to restrict the power of the judges.

Justice minister George Savvides, a lawyer himself, explained there was no case law regarding the definition or application of “serious cause” in contrast to “probable cause,” which was well-established in case law. The difficulty in defining “serious cause”, apart from making it more difficult for the judge to give approval, would offer an argument to defence lawyers that phone-tapping evidence was obtained unlawfully – the “serious cause” did not exist for the judge to approve the surveillance. The amendment offers lawyers another legal technicality for winning a case.

A second amendment imposed a complete ban on listening into phone conversations between lawyers and clients. So even criminal activity being discussed by lawyer and client is privileged and cannot be used in court. Savvides was absolutely right in saying “these amendments weaken the bill and make it easier to question the evidence obtained.” And it would not be the first time, nor the last, the lawyers working as Representatives would render legislation toothless through amendments.

Invariably they claim they are protecting the rights of citizens. In the case of the “serious cause” amendment the Edek deputy claimed it was intended to prevent abuses of the law! So, in order to prevent alleged abuse, the law would effectively not be used. Deputies should ask themselves who is being protected by their concern with alleged abuses of the law? Not law-abiding citizens. It is law-breakers and criminals that are being protected by a law restricting the ability of the police to use a phone wire to fight crime. And it is law abiding citizens that suffer when are deprived of important tools to fight crime by our deputies.

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