Liberty (pressure group)

The National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL)
Motto To protect civil liberties and promote human rights for everyone
Formation 1 January 1934 (1934-01-01) (77 years ago)
Type Political pressure group
Legal status Trust
Purpose/focus Human Rights
Headquarters London, England
Director Shami Chakrabarti

Liberty is a pressure group based in the United Kingdom. Its formal name is the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL).[1] Founded in 1934 by Ronald Kidd and Sylvia Crowther-Smith (later Scaffardi),[2] the group campaigns to protect civil liberties and promote human rights. Liberty campaigns to protect basic rights and freedoms through the courts, in Parliament and in the wider community. They do this through a combination of public campaigning, test case litigation, parliamentary lobbying, policy analysis and the provision of free advice and information. Its current director is Shami Chakrabarti who took the role in September 2003.



Foundation and early years.

The immediate spur to the organisation's formation was the National Hunger March, 1932.[3] The first Secretary was Ronald Kidd, and first President E. M. Forster; Vice-Presidents were the politician and author A. P. Herbert and the journalist Kingsley Martin of the New Statesman. H.G. Wells, Vera Brittain, Clement Attlee, Rebecca West, Edith Summerskill and Harold Laski were also founder members.[4]

The National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) was founded in 1934. This title had been used earlier, in World War I, for an organisation founded as the National Council Against Conscription, which changed its name in 1916. This former organisation may not have lasted longer than until about 1918, and no connection can be assumed.

The inaugural meeting took place in the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London on 22 February 1934. A letter published in the Times and Guardian newspapers announced the formations of the group, citing "the general and alarming tendency to encroachment on the liberty of the citizen" as the reason for its establishment.[5] The first campaign was against the criminalisation of pacifist or anti-war literature. Under the proposed ‘Sedition Bill’ it would have been a criminal offence to possess pacifist literature, for example anti-war pamphlets. Although the Bill became law, NCCL succeeded in watering it down.[4] Other prominent early themes included campaigning against fascists, against film censorship and support for striking miners in Nottinghamshire.[6]

Post war

BBC ban

During the 1940s NCCL led protests against a BBC ban on artists who attended a ‘People’s Convention’ organised by the Communist party.[4]

Miscarriages of justice

At this time NCCL was also involved in several miscarriage of justice cases, including that of Emery, Powers and Thompson who were sentenced to between four and ten years imprisonment for assaulting a police officer, even though someone else confessed to the crime and the prosecution evidence is flawed. NCCL found a witness who confirmed the men’s alibi and they were released from prison and granted a royal pardon.[7]

Reform of the mental health System

During the 1950s NCCL campaigned for reform of the mental health system, under which people known to be sane but deemed ‘morally defective’ – unmarried mothers, for example – could be locked up in an asylum.

By 1957, the campaign had seen the release of around 2,000 former inmates, the abolition of the Mental Health Act 1913 and the establishment of new Mental Health Review Tribunals and the Mental Health Act 1959.[8]


The 1960s saw the organisation broaden its scope, particularly from 1966 under new General Secretary Tony Smyth. It campaigned on racial issues, on behalf of gypsies, children, prisoners and servicemen who had changed their decision about joining the forces.[6] This broader range of campaigning resulted in a large rise in membership and a higher profile in the media.[9]

Opposition to racial discrimination

After 1960, NCCL responded to the tightening of immigration laws and a rise in race-hate incidents by lobbying for the Race Relations Act, which came into force in 1965. NCCL also published pamphlets exposing the effective ‘colour bar’, whereby black and Asian people were refused service in certain pubs and hotels.[4]

Women's rights

Campaigning for women's rights was also a major part of NCCL's work in this period, including successfully calling for reform of jury service laws that effectively prevented women and the poor from serving on juries by means of a property qualification.[4]

Gypsies and travellers

After the Highways Act 1959 made it illegal to camp on highway verges NCCL worked to protect traveller and Gypsy communities from persecution. In one illustrative case, Gypsies in Orpington were moved onto the highway by officials and then summonsed for infringing the Highways Act. The Act was eventually abolished in 1980 after a long campaign.[10]

Right to public protest

NCCL intervened on behalf of groups refused permission to protest and monitoring the policing of demonstrations such as those against the Vietnam War.[4]

Support for reluctant servicemen

NCCL also campaigned to raise awareness of the difficulty faced by ‘reluctant servicemen’ – men in the armed forces who had often signed-up as teenagers then realised they’d made a mistake but were prevented from discharging themselves for anything up to 16 years.[4]

Northern Ireland

In 1972 NCCL campaigned for civil rights in Northern Ireland, including collecting 600 witness statements to show that the army was criminally reckless when 14 people were killed on a civil rights march in Derry, referred to as Bloody Sunday.[10]

Data protection

In 1975 NCCL bought 3 million credit rating files from Konfax Ltd after they were offered for sale in the Evening Standard. The files were destroyed and the major privacy protection ‘Right to Know’ campaign to give individuals greater control over their personal information was launched in 1977.[4]


From 1974-83 the NCCL was headed by Patricia Hewitt, who was later to become prominent in the Labour Party, serving as Health Secretary. A number of other future high profile Labour politicians worked at the organisation at this time, such as Harriet Harman who worked as the legal officer and her husband Jack Dromey.[11][12]

Organisations such as Paedophile Information Exchange (P.I.E.) and Paedophile Action for Liberation controversially became affiliated to the NCCL and made complaints to the press watchdog about their treatment by tabloid newspapers. NCCL worked to reduce the age of consent in the United Kingdom and argued that court cases and inquests compelling young people to recount sexual activities wilfully engaged in could do more damage than the acts themselves, arguing that “childhood sexual experiences, willingly engaged in, with an adult result in no identifiable damage”. They also sought to place the "onus of proof on the prosecution to show that the child was actually harmed" rather than having a blanket ban on child pornography and advocated the decriminalisation of incest. the NCCL stated they supported "any organisation that seeks to campaign for anything it wants within the law". Groups such as P.I.E. were later excluded from the organisation.[13]

‘Sus’ laws

In 1981 following an NCCL campaign, the ‘sus’ laws, which allowed police to stop and search on the grounds of suspicion alone, are repealed.[10]

Gay rights and censorship

NCCL acted for the owners of ‘Gay’s the Word’ bookshop, whose stock was confiscated by Customs officers in 1984. All charges were dropped and the stock was returned.[10]

Miners' strike

During the miners’ strike, NCCL campaigned on behalf of miners stopped from picketing outside their home regions.[4]

MI5 surveillance

The European Court of Human Rights ruled that MI5 surveillance of Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt during the pair’s tenure at Liberty breached the European Convention on Human Rights.[7]


1989 had seen the NCCL rebranded, changing its name to "Liberty".

Detention without charge

During the Gulf War, Liberty successfully campaigned for the release of over 100 Iraqi nationals – some of whom were openly opposed to Saddam Hussein – detained without charge in Britain on the grounds that they posed a risk to national security.[4]

Miscarriage of justice

Throughout the 1990s Liberty focused again on miscarriage of justice cases and campaigned for reform of the criminal justice system. High profile cases included that of the Birmingham Six, who were released after 16 years in prison for IRA bombings they didn’t commit.[4]

Human Rights Act

In 1998 Liberty’s campaign to bring the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law finally succeeds with the passing of the Human Rights Act 1998.[10]

At the start of the 2000s, Liberty used the protections in the new Human Rights Act 1998 to fight a number of landmark cases, including supporting terminally-ill Diane Pretty’s fight to die with dignity and Christine Goodwin’s successful bid to have her new gender legally recognised following discrimination and harassment at work.

A and others v Secretary of State for the Home Department

Liberty intervened in the long-running A and others v Secretary of State for the Home Department case which led to a crucially important decision for future government policy in 2004 when the Law Lords ruled that detaining non-British nationals without trial was unlawful. In a 2005 judgment the Law Lords also confirmed that evidence obtained through torture was not admissible in British courts.[7]

Katherine Gun

In 2004, Liberty acted for the translator and whistleblower Katharine Gun who claimed that the American National Security Agency had requested the British Government's help in illegal surveillance on the UN. She was prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act 1989. The charges were dropped when the prosecution failed to offer any evidence.[7]

2005 onwards

Liberty's Legal Counsel Shami Chakrabarti was appointed as Liberty's new director in September 2003. The organisation became increasingly high profile, with Chakrabarti making regular appearances in the media. She was described in The Times newspaper as "the most effective public affairs lobbyist of the past 20 years". [14].

Pre-charge detention During 2007 and 2008 Liberty led the opposition to government plans to extend detention without charge for those suspected of terrorism to 42 days. Liberty won a major campaign victory when the government dropped the proposal after it was rejected by the House of Lords in October 2008.[10]

Gooch Gang

In April 2009, Liberty controversially protested against a poster campaign by Greater Manchester Police which depicted a series of notorious Manchester gangsters, the Gooch Gang as pensioners. The billboard campaign used computer-generated images of Colin Joyce and Lee Amos showed how the “aged” criminals would look when they are finally released from prison in the 2040s. Liberty supported claims that the posters should be removed following complaints from family members of the gangsters, not involved with their relative's criminality, who claimed they were being targeted in the community after the posters were erected.[15]

Current campaigns include opposing unfair extradition proceedings, the most prominent case being that of Gary McKinnon.[16]


The structure of Liberty comprises three organisations:

  • Liberty - an unincorporated association
    • This is the member-based organisation which individuals can join.
  • Liberty - the company
    • This is the company that employs Liberty staff, leases buildings, etc.
  • The Civil Liberties Trust
    • This is a company and a charity, independent of Liberty

Causes and associations

The main issues that Liberty represents in the UK at the moment are:

Liberty is also a supporter of the NO2ID coalition.

See also


  1. ^ Liberty - Constitution and Rules (May 2007)
  2. ^ Encyclopedia of British and Irish Political Organisations
  3. ^ [1][dead link]
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Dyson, Brian. "Liberty in Britain 1934-1994 : a diamond jubilee history of the National Council for Civil Liberties" Civil Liberties Trust, 1994
  5. ^ "Article - Untitled Article". London: 1934-02-24. Retrieved 2011-01-15. 
  6. ^ a b "ARCHIVES OF LIBERTY (FORMERLY THE NATIONAL COUNCIL FOR CIVIL LIBERTIES) (1934 - )". Archives Hub. Retrieved 2011-01-15. 
  7. ^ a b c d "Key Liberty legal cases | Legal work | Liberty - protecting civil liberties, promoting human rights". Retrieved 2011-01-15. 
  8. ^ Therapy and learning difficulties ... - Google Books. Retrieved 2011-01-15. 
  9. ^ Michael Randle (2004-03-29). "Obituary: Tony Smythe | Law". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2011-01-15. 
  10. ^ a b c d e f "Liberty timeline | History | Liberty - protecting civil liberties, promoting human rights". Retrieved 2011-01-15. 
  11. ^ Harriet Harman under attack over bid to water down child pornography law - Telegraph
  12. ^
  13. ^ Harriet Harman under attack over bid to water down child pornography law - Telegraph
  14. ^
  15. ^ Edwards, Richard (2009-06-17). "Gooch crime gang relatives sue police for 'breaching human rights'". The Daily Telegraph (London). 
  16. ^

External links

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