Liberty (advocacy 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)
Type Political pressure group
Legal status Trust
Purpose Human Rights
Headquarters London, England
Martha Spurrier

Liberty, formerly and still formally called the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL),[1] is an advocacy group based in the United Kingdom, which campaigns to protect civil liberties and promote human rights – through the courts, in Parliament and in the wider community.

The NCCL was founded in 1934 by Ronald Kidd and Sylvia Crowther-Smith (later Scaffardi).[2] In 2009, the organisation celebrated its 75th anniversary.

Liberty's aim is to not only protect civil liberties but also to engender a "rights culture" within British society.[2] Liberty announced Martha Spurrier as its new director on 31 March 2016.[3]


Foundation and early years

The immediate spur to the organisation's formation was the National Hunger March 1932.[4] 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.[5]

The National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) was founded in 1934. The inaugural meeting took place in the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London on 22 February. A letter published in The Times and The 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.[6] The first campaign was against the criminalisation of pacifist or anti-war literature. Under the proposed Incitement to Disaffection Bill, commonly known as the 'Sedition Bill', it would have been a criminal offence to possess pacifist literature, for example anti-war pamphlets. Although the Bill became law as the Incitement to Disaffection Act 1934, NCCL succeeded in watering it down.[5] Other prominent early themes included campaigning against fascists, against film censorship and support for striking miners in Nottinghamshire.[7]

After never fully recovering from a car accident in 1937, general secretary Ronald Kidd died in 1942 and was succeeded by Elizabeth Acland Allen.


In 1989 NCCL changed its name to "Liberty". During this period, the organisation was headed by Andrew Puddephatt and John Wadham.

On 10 September 2001, Shami Chakrabarti joined Liberty.[8] After working as in-house counsel, she was appointed director of Liberty in 2003. As director, she began campaigning against what the pressure group saw as the "excessive" anti-terrorist measures that followed the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States, such as the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 (ATCSA).[9] Liberty 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".[10][11]

Since the 2015 UK general election, Liberty has spearheaded the campaign to save the Human Rights Act. In August 2015, Chakrabarti said Liberty intended to become "more vigilant and active" in Scotland.[12] She later shared a platform with Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to jointly defend the HRA.[13]

In January 2015 it emerged that Chakrabarti was standing down as Liberty's director.[14] Martha Spurrier took up the post at the end of May.[3][15]


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.[5]

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 was flawed. NCCL found a witness who confirmed the men's alibi and they were released from prison and granted a royal pardon.[16]

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.[17]


The 1960s saw the organisation broaden its scope, particularly from 1966 under new general secretary Tony Smythe. It campaigned on racial issues, on behalf of gypsies, children, prisoners and servicemen who had changed their decision about joining the forces.[7] This broader range of campaigning resulted in a large rise in membership and a higher profile in the media.[18]

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.[5]

Following Conservative MP Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood speech in 1968 the NCCL set about organising an emergency "Speak out on Race" meeting and also presented an NCCL petition to the Prime Minister.

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.[5]

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.[5]

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.[5]

Northern Ireland

In 1972 NCCL campaigned for civil rights in Northern Ireland.[19]

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.[5]


Near the end of 1974, Patricia Hewitt, later a Labour cabinet minister, was appointed as general secretary.[7] 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 from 1978–82, and Jack Dromey, later her husband, was a member (1970–79) and chairman of the Executive Committee.


In 1976, the NCCL in a submission to the Criminal Law Revision Committee of the British Parliament argued that "Childhood sexual experiences, willingly engaged in, with an adult result in no identifiable damage… The real need is a change in the attitude which assumes that all cases of paedophilia result in lasting damage".[20] Organisations such as Paedophile Information Exchange (P.I.E.), a pro-paedophile activist group, and Paedophile Action for Liberation became affiliated to the pressure group.[21] Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, issued an apology about the links between the NCCL and the PIE. In December 2013, she said: "It is a source of continuing disgust and horror that even the NCCL had to expel paedophiles from its ranks in 1983 after infiltration at some point in the 70s."[22][23]

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 in 1986.[24]

Miners' strike

During the miners' strike, NCCL campaigned on behalf of miners stopped from picketing outside their home regions.[5]

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.[16]


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.[5]

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 did not commit.[5]

Human Rights Act

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 fight for transgender rights.

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 following which 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.[25]

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.[16]

2005 onwards

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.[26] Chakrabarti and Liberty claimed a major campaign victory when the government dropped the proposal after it was rejected by the House of Lords in October 2008.[27]

Gooch Gang

In April 2009, Liberty 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 to show 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.[28]

Cream of Conscience

November 2011 saw Liberty successfully assist in preventing Westminster City Council from implementing a proposed byelaw which would have essentially criminalised "soup runs" within areas of Southwark.[29][30]

Freedom Games?

In response to the vast security systems which were put in place ahead of the London 2012 Olympic Games, Liberty raised concerns with regards to the infringements to civil liberties which would subsequently occur. Liberty argued that neither peaceful protest nor the right to free speech were a factor in ensuring the safety of the Games.[31]

For their eyes only

Another prominent campaign in 2012 was "For their eyes only"[32] in response to the proposed Justice and Security Bill which was introduced in the House of Lords on 28 May 2012. The Bill was introduced as a result of prolific media investigations and litigation surrounding the UK Government and proposed "secret courts"[33] and evidence which would be non-disclosable. A campaign presence and attendance by Shami Chakrabarti at the Liberal Democrats Conference in September 2012 in Brighton successfully led to the passing of a motion by Jo Shaw, Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Spokesperson for Holborn and St Pancras, against the Bill.[34] Nevertheless, the substantially unchanged Bill became law in April 2013.[35]

Extradition Watch

A current prominent campaign by Liberty has been in relation to fairer extradition laws and the opposition of unfair extradition proceedings, the most prominent case being that of Gary McKinnon who gained world wide press attention. Other prolific cases included that of Babar Ahmed, Talha Ahsan and Christopher Tappin.

Gary McKinnon

16 October 2012 saw a victory for Gary McKinnon, after a decade-long ordeal, as the Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced that she was refusing to allow Gary's extradition to the US on the basis that doing so would breach his Human Rights.[36] Gary McKinnon was charged in 2002 of hacking into US military and NASA systems, but maintains that he was looking for UFOs and evidence of free energy suppression. Gary, who suffers from Asperger Syndrome, could have spent up to 70 years in a US jail if convicted[37] and it was argued by his lawyers in an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that because of this factor and because the crime was committed in the UK that he should be tried in the UK. Director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti said of the Home Secretary's decision "This is a great day for rights, freedoms and justice in the United Kingdom."[38] The Home Office also admitted that it was the Human Rights Act which essentially prevented the extradition.[39][40]

Gay Rights

Liberty intervened in the case of gay couple Michael Black and John Morgan who were turned away from a B&B because of the owner's religious views. On 18 October 2012 it was ruled that the B&B owner was in breach of equality legislation by unlawfully discriminating against the couple on the basis of their sexual orientation. Liberty's Legal Director James Welch, said of the decision "Hopefully today's ruling signals the death knell of such 'no gays' policies – policies that would never be tolerated if they referred to a person's race, gender or religion."[41][42]


Liberty is both a non-profit company that employs staff and runs campaigns, and a member-based association. Both work closely with the Civil Liberties Trust. Liberty is divided into three organisations:

A democratically-run membership association, which individuals can join.[43]

A non-profit company that employs staff and runs campaigns etc. It leases buildings and works closely with the Civil Liberties Trust (see below).[43]

The Civil Liberties Trust (CLT) is a registered charity (No. 1024948), independent of Liberty. The CLT has no staff, but commissions Liberty to conduct charitable work such as providing public advice and information, also research, policy work, and litigation.[44]

Causes and associations

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

General Secretaries and Directors

1932: Ronald Kidd
1942: Elizabeth Acland Allen
1960: Martin Ennals
1966: Tony Smythe
1973: Martin Loney
1974: Patricia Hewitt
1984: Larry Gostin
1985: Sarah Spencer
1989: Andrew Puddephatt
1995: John Wadham
2003: Shami Chakrabarti
2016: Martha Spurrier


Liberty produces briefings on its campaign issues, as well as researching and writing reports on particular areas of human rights and civil liberties.


Policy Papers

Being a cross-party, non-party political organisation, Liberty regularly publishes Policy Papers to provide consultation to parliamentary committees on issues relating to human rights and civil liberties in the UK.[55]

See also


  1. Liberty – Constitution and Rules | As amended by the AGM 19 May 2007
  2. 1 2 Liberty | Entry in the Encyclopedia of British and Irish Political Organisations
  3. 1 2 Bowcott, Owen (31 March 2016). "Liberty names barrister Martha Spurrier as new director". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 31 March 2016.
  4. "Liberty".
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Dyson, Brian (1994): Liberty in Britain 1934–1994: a diamond jubilee history of the National Council for Civil Liberties. Civil Liberties Trust.
  6. "The Guardian and Observer digital archive". the Guardian.
  7. 1 2 3 Administrative/Biographical History of Liberty | Liberty Archive on the Archives hub at the Centre of great research [retrieved: 16 January 2013]
  8. "Desert Island Discs featuring Shami Chakrabarti". Desert Island Discs. 2 November 2008. BBC. Radio 4. Archived from the original on 10 February 2009.
  9. Chakrabarti, Shami (20 May 2007). "So much freedom lost and on my watch". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 23 May 2010.
  10. Column by David Aaronovitch for The Times
  11. Jamie Doward. "Profile: Shami Chakrabarti, the undaunted freedom fighter". the Guardian.
  12. Beaton, Connor (20 August 2015). "Shami Chakrabarti's Liberty sets sights on Scotland". Scottish Legal News. Retrieved 23 September 2015.
  13. Beaton, Connor (23 September 2015). "Human Rights Act repeal would diminish UK reputation, says Sturgeon". Scottish Legal News. Retrieved 23 September 2015.
  14. Bowcott, Owen (14 January 2016). "Shami Chakrabarti steps down as Liberty director after 12 years". The Guardian. Retrieved 14 January 2016.
  15. "Liberty names barrister Martha Spurrier as new director". BBC News. 31 March 2016. Retrieved 31 March 2016.
  16. 1 2 3 Liberty Legal Work | on
  17. Swain, J. & French, S. (1999): Therapy and Learning Difficulties: Advocacy, Participation and Partnership. Oxford: Butterworth–Heinemann.
  18. "Obituary: Tony Smythe". the Guardian.
  19. Brian Dooley (1998). Black and Green: The Fight for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland & Black America. Pluto Press. p. 41. ISBN 978-0-7453-1295-8.
  20. "How Hattie's friends defended paedophilia". News - Telegraph Blogs.
  21. Martin Beckford, Social Affairs Correspondent (9 March 2009). "Harriet Harman under attack over bid to water down child pornography law".
  22. Hope, Christopher (24 February 2014). "Harriet Harman, Jack Dromey, Patricia Hewitt and the Paedophile Information Exchange". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 25 February 2014.
  23. Mason, Rowena. "Harriet Harman rejects allegations of 1970s link to paedophile campaign | Politics". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 February 2014.
  24. McKerrow, Graham; Northmore, David (27 June 1986). "Newsflash" (PDF). Defend Gay's the Word Campaign. Retrieved 31 March 2016.
  25. Judgments – A and others v. Secretary of State for the Home Department | House of the Lords, Session 2005–06
  26. Owen, Paul (16 July 2008). "Chakrabarti attacks Asian MPs over support for 42-day detention". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 March 2016.
  27. Chakrabarti, Shami (14 October 2008). "On 42 days, their lordships were glorious". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 March 2016.
  28. Gooch crime gang relatives sue police for 'breaching human rights' Richard Edwards for The Daily Telegraph, 17 June 2009 (retrieved: 16 January 2013)
  29. Liberty Serves Up Cream Of Conscience To Council | The Londonist, 3 June 2011 (retrieved: 16 January 2013)
  30. Soup Run Campaign | on
  31. Freedom Games Campaign | on
  32. For Their Eyes Only Campaign | on
  33. "Secret courts – the essential guide". Lawyers for London. 25 September 2012. Retrieved 16 January 2013.
  34. Tide turns on secret courts | Isabella Sankey, Director of Liberty Policy | on
  35. "Bill stages — Justice and Security Act 2013".
  36. Judgments – Mckinnon V Government of The United States of America and Another | House of Lords, Session 2007–08
  37. Alan Travis. "Gary McKinnon will not be extradited to US, Theresa May announces". the Guardian.
  38. Gary McKinnon: how unknown hacker sparked political and diplomatic storm | The Guardian, 16 October 2013 [retrieved: 16 January 2013]
  39. "Liberty launches McKinnon paper plane campaign".
  40. Home Secretary accepts it was the Human Rights Act that saved Gary | Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty | on
  41. Gay couple turned away from B&B win discrimination case | The Telegraph, 18 October 2012
  42. Victory for B&B Discrimination Couple | Press Release on
  43. 1 2 Liberty | on
  44. The Civil Liberties Trust | on
  45. Litigating the Public Interest | Liberty, July 2006
  46. Twelve Point Terror Package Initial Thoughts | Liberty, August 2005
  47. Prevention of Terrorism Act | Liberty, Summary 2005
  48. Impact of Anti-Terror Measures on British Muslims | Liberty, June 2004
  49. ID Card Bill key points | Liberty, December 2004
  50. A New 'Suspect Community' | Liberty, October 2003
  51. Rights of victims of crime | Liberty, February 2003
  52. Magistrates Court Review | Liberty, February 2003
  53. Casualty of War – Counter Terror Legislation in Rural England | Liberty, 2003
  54. An Independent Police Complaints Commission | Liberty, April 2000
  55. Liberty Policy Papers | on
  56. "Victims suffer double indignity". Wilmington Morning Star (109, no. 47). Wilmington, N.C. 15 December 1975. p. 3. Retrieved 24 January 2016.
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