Intelligence Law in the United Kingdom

Posted: 7 Jan 2020

See all articles by Simon Mckay

Simon Mckay


Clive Walker

University of Leeds - Centre for Criminal Justice Studies (CCJS)

Date Written: December 1, 2019


This paper examines the three principal institutions of the United Kingdom’s intelligence apparatus, the Security Service (MI5), the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). It will consider the statutory frameworks that formally established the agencies and then detail the, at times, questionable or obscure legal bases for the discharge of their functions. It will also provide an overview of other state agencies carrying out intelligence functions. The paper will then set out the activities of the agencies, as amended by the Investigatory Powers Act 2016. This major reform was introduced in the aftermath of the Edward Snowden disclosures but still leaves legal vulnerabilities and gaps. It will also consider pre-existing arrangements for covert surveillance and the use of human intelligence. Then, the paper will turn to the range of mechanisms for accountability and oversight. Reflection on the current legal framework will include issues of construction, human rights compliance, and the judicialisation of intelligence.

Keywords: Intelligence, surveillance, legal powers, accountability, judicialisation

JEL Classification: K10, K14, K33, K19, K30, K33, K42, N40

Suggested Citation

Mckay, Simon and Walker, Clive, Intelligence Law in the United Kingdom (December 1, 2019). Available at SSRN:

Simon Mckay


Clive Walker (Contact Author)

University of Leeds - Centre for Criminal Justice Studies (CCJS) ( email )

Leeds LS2 9JT
United Kingdom
44 (0) 113 3435022 (Phone)
44 (0) 113 3435056 (Fax)


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