Writers have always been natural allies of Liberty. From our first President EM Forster and founding members HG Wells and Vera Brittain to our current Writers At Liberty group, they have long stood beside us, helping to ensure basic rights and freedoms are upheld.
We might not look it, but next Monday Liberty turns 80. To help celebrate, we’re currently hosting an Anniversary Exhibition at St-Martin-in-the-Fields in London – the very place our founders first met, 80 years ago. We invited Liberty members to come and join us at the exhibition for a special members’ day. Here’s an edited version of what our Chair, Frances Butler, had to say as she welcomed our members to the special event...
Liberty was founded in 1934 as the National Council for Civil Liberties, and we have campaigned to protect and promote our fundamental rights and freedoms for 80 years.
Browse our timeline to see key dates from our long history and find out about our campaigns, from mental health reform to privacy protection and peaceful protest.
1934 - Liberty is founded
Liberty is founded by Ronald Kidd as the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL), prompted by police brutality towards peaceful protesters during the Hunger Marches and the “general and alarming tendency to encroach on the liberty of the citizen.” Early members include Vera Brittain and E. M. Forster.
Ronald Kidd and Sylvia Scaffardi
An early NCCL priority was to tackle the rise of fascism in the UK. Despite British troops fighting for freedom and democracy abroad, at home fascism and anti-Semitism were on the increase.
1937 - Harworth Colliery Strike
The NCCL investigates the arrest and heavy sentencing of the leaders of the miners’ strike at Harworth Colliery, exposing bias against the strikers from members of the authorities.
The strike was called at Harworth Colliery following the owners’ decision to make membership of the company union a condition of employment, with those who refused locked out and replaced. Striking miners were harassed by the police, and the leaders were arrested and given disproportionately heavy sentences.
The NCCL led a public campaign to help the strike leaders, collecting 25,000 petition signatures. Here Ronald Kidd delivers the petition to the Home Office.
Ronald Kidd with Haworth Strike Petition in 1937.
1938 - Press censorship
The NCCL organises its first conference – on press censorship and the Official Secrets Act.
Press Freedom Mass Meeting
1942 - Founder Ronald Kidd dies
Founder Ronald Kidd dies aged 53. Elizabeth Acland Allen takes over as General Secretary.
A major conference on wartime press freedom attracts thousands of delegates.
1947 - An international conference and the 'Jane' case
The NCCL organises an International Conference on Human Rights, with representatives attending from 15 countries.
The NCCL takes up its first major mental health case, the ‘Jane’ case. ‘Jane’ had been wrongly detained in a senile ward of a mental health institution after giving birth to an illegitimate child and being refused shelter by her father.
1949 - Racism in the Carrington House case
Widespread race discrimination and an effective ‘colour bar’ is exposed when NCCL defends 14 black men charged with affray in the Carrington House case.
Carrington House was a hostel in Deptford which housed around 50 West African immigrants who were directed there by the Colonial Office.
The men faced increasing antagonism from the local community and had difficulty finding jobs or being served. In 1949 14 of the men were arrested for ‘affray.’
The NCCL arranged their defence and the majority were acquitted, exposing severe race discrimination.
1951 - 50,000 Outside the Law
The NCCL publishes 50,000 Outside the Law, a groundbreaking report on those unjustly incarcerated under the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act.
50,000 outside the law poster.
1957 - Mental health reform
After years of NCCL campaigning to reform the mental health system, a Royal Commission report vindicates their arguments with almost 2,000 patients released by 1958.
1959 - The Mental Health Act 1913 is abolished
The Mental Health Act 1913 is abolished and new Mental Health Review Tribunals established, at which Liberty regularly represents the interests of patients.
1960 - Protecting the right to protest
Freedom of speech and assembly becomes a major civil liberties issue following the government response to the activities of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the Committee of 100 (an anti-war group).
The NCCL investigates police behaviour at demonstrations.
1963 - Challenor case
The Cobden Trust (later the Civil Liberties Trust) is founded as a research and charitable arm.
Landmark Challenor case taken:
Four young people taking part in a demonstration were accused of carrying weapons. All stated that the weapons (half bricks) had been planted on them by Sergeant Harold Challenor.
The NCCL supported the defendants and all the charges were dismissed or withdrawn. Challenor was investigated by the Director of Public Prosecutions, and the case led to the release of several people who had been wrongly imprisoned.
1965 - Race Relations Act
The first Race Relations Act is passed, after lobbying by the NCCL and others.
1968 - 'Speak out on race'
An emergency ‘Speak out on Race’ meeting is organised following Conservative MP Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech, and an NCCL petition is presented to Prime Minister. The NCCL also runs a major campaign on privacy.
Privacy under attack campaign poster.
1972 - Northern Ireland
The NCCL campaigns against internment in Northern Ireland, and collects 600 witness statements to show that the army showed criminal recklessness after 14 people were killed on the 1972 civil rights march known as ‘Bloody Sunday.’
1975 – Data protection
The NCCL buys millions of Konfax credit-rating files offered for sale for one penny – promptly destroying them.
1977 - Right to Know
Launch of major Right to Know campaign, which calls for greater protection of individuals’ confidential information.
1979 - Blair Peach
The NCCL sets up an independent inquiry into the death of activist Blair Peach at an anti-National Front demonstration.
1980 - Gypsy and traveller communities
After the Highways Act 1959 made it illegal to camp on highway verges, the NCCL worked to protect traveller and gypsy communities from persecution. The Act is abolished in 1980 after a long campaign.
1981 - 'Sus' laws
Following NCCL campaigning, the ‘sus’ laws, which allowed police to stop and search on the grounds of suspicion alone, are repealed.
1982 - Kathleen Stewart
The NCCL supports Kathleen Stewart in an application to the European Commission following the death of her teenage son, hit by a plastic bullet in Belfast in 1976.
1984 - 'Gay's the Word'
Customs and Excise officers seize the stock of Gay’s the Word bookshop. The NCCL offers support and representation and all charges are dropped in 1986.
1985 - Miners' strike
During the miners’ strike, the NCCL strongly upholds the right to strike and campaigns on behalf of miners stopped from picketing outside their home regions.
1989 – NCCL becomes Liberty
The NCCL changes its name to Liberty, and the new identity is launched at a press conference at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London by playwright Harold Pinter, Robin Cook MP and others.
1990 - Harman and Hewitt
The European Court of Human Rights rules that MI5 surveillance of Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt during their time working at Liberty breached the European Convention.
1991 - The People's Charter
Liberty publishes a ‘People’s Charter’ as part of a campaign for human rights to be enshrined in UK law.
1998 - The Human Rights Act
Liberty’s long campaign to bring the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law finally succeeds with the passing of the Human Rights Act.
The Human Rights Act: What's not to love?
2000 - Smith and Grady case
Liberty wins a declaration from the European Court of Human Rights that the intrusive investigation and eventual dismissal of Graeme Grady and Jeanette Smith from the armed forces because of their sexuality infringed their right to respect for their private lives.
2001 – Anti-terror legislation
Terrorist attacks in New York on 11 September provoke a raft of anti-terror legislation with serious implications for civil liberties.
2001 - Diane Pretty
Using the protections in the new Human Rights Act Liberty supports terminally ill Diane Pretty’s fight to choose when to end her life.
2002 - Transgender rights
Christine Goodwin successfully uses the Human Rights Act to have her new gender legally recognised following discrimination and harassment at work. After almost 50 years of case judgments that have failed to protect transgender rights, the ruling marks a historic breakthrough.
The Civil Liberties Trust becomes the first UK charity to adopt ‘promoting human rights’ as an objective.
2004 - Katharine Gun
Liberty intervenes in a major case, A & Others, in which the Law Lords rule that detaining non-British nationals without trial is unlawful, a crucially important decision for future government policy.
Government whistleblower Katharine Gun is successfully defended by Liberty:
In the lead-up to the Iraq war Katharine Gun, an employee of GCHQ, was accused of disclosing to the media that the US had requested assistance from British intelligence to tap the telephones of members of the UN Security Council.
Gun argued that the disclosures exposed serious wrongdoing and that she acted out of necessity to prevent the deaths of Iraqis and British forces in an "illegal war."
Following a request for disclosure of the Attorney General’s advice on the legality of the war the prosecution was dropped.
2005 - A & Others and evidence from torture
In A & Others the Law Lords confirm that evidence obtained through torture is not admissible in British courts.
Government proposals for an increased limit of 90-day detention without trial in terror cases are defeated.
2006 - ID cards
Liberty runs major campaigns against the introduction of ID cards and the UK’s involvement in torture overseas.
Liberty Not ID Cards projection on the Palace of Westminster.
2007 - Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre
Liberty calls for a public inquiry into the mistreatment of asylum seekers at Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre.
2008 - Charge or Release
After 15 months of Liberty’s award winning Charge or Release campaign and a resounding Lords defeat, the Government’s 42 day pre-charge detention proposals are dropped.
The European Court ruling in S & MarperDNA retention case strikes a blow for privacy protection.
Charge or Release campaign poster.
2009 - Slavery
Liberty brings a legal case on behalf of a victim of modern-day slavery and publicises the vacuum in legal protection, resulting in a new law criminalising forced labour in the UK.
2010 - 2014
2010 - From the 'War on Terror' to the rule of law?
The European Court rules in Liberty’s case Gillan and Quinton that Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 (the broad police power for stop and search without suspicion) violates the right to respect for private life.
The ID Card scheme is scrapped, after years of campaigning by Liberty and others.
After a decade-long campaign, Liberty welcomes the Home Secretary’s announcement that Gary McKinnon will not face extradition to the US.
2012 - Liberty Director carries Olympic flag in 2012 Opening Ceremony
Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, participates in the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games, joining human rights activists and athletes from across the globe in carrying the traditional Olympic flag into the stadium.
2012 – No Snoopers’ Charter
A leaked letter from the Home Secretary and Lord Chancellor reveals proposals to force communications service providers to keep a record of people’s “communication data” – detailing every phone call, text, email and website visit we make.
Liberty launches a major No Snoopers’ Charter campaign and collaborates with other organisations in opposing the proposals. In spring 2013, the Snoopers’ Charter is dropped.
2013 – Military Justice
After beginning work on a series of legal cases involving suspicious deaths of young military personnel, Liberty launches its Military Justice campaign to protect and uphold the human rights of those serving in the British Armed Forces.
Liberty calls for sexual assault allegations by military personnel to be automatically referred for investigation by the Service Police and Director of Service Prosecutions and for an independent watchdog to be created with the power to review cases.
2013 – The Edward Snowden Leaks – Liberty legal challenge
The Edward Snowden leaks reveal that GCHQ has access to the transatlantic cables carrying the world’s communications and is intercepting and processing billions of communications every day and sharing the information with the US.
Liberty calls for an overhaul of outdated privacy regulations and launches two legal claims on behalf of a coalition of human rights groups, challenging the legality of the security services’ activities.
2013 – Final call for Schedule 7?
Liberty condemns the use of Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act to detain David Miranda, the partner of the Guardian journalist working with whistleblower Edward Snowden. The power allows for people to be detained for 9 hours, fingerprinted, strip searched and interrogated without right of access to a lawyer.
Liberty intervenes in support of Miranda in his legal challenge.
2013 – “Go Home” Vans
The UK Government targets ethnically diverse areas of London with mobile billboards carrying the slogan ‘In the UK illegally? Go Home or face arrest,’ accompanied by immigration ‘spot checks.’
Liberty responds with an alternative van accusing the Home Office of stirring up social tensions. The “Go Home” vans are subsequently scrapped.
Liberty's 'Home Office: Think Again' van.
2014 - Liberty turns 80
To celebrate this landmark birthday, Liberty invites 79 writers, including Malorie Blackman, Ben Okri and Kate Tempest, to compose a piece on the theme of ‘Liberty’. Liberty launches a competition to find the 80th writer, asking members of the public to submit a piece which would stand alongside these acclaimed writers. All 80 pieces can be read here.
2014 - Prisoner Books
When the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling banned books (amongst other things) from being sent in to prisons, Liberty knew it was time for action. The policy is ill-conceived, cruel and justifiable. On Mr Grayling’s birthday, Liberty, together with our Writers, delivers a gift-wrapped present of a large box of books to the Ministry of Justice in protest at the ban.
2014 - Surveillance
After a behind-closed-doors agreement between the three main party leaders, the Government introduces the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill. The Bill is rushed through and allows for astonishing new powers to pursue the blanket data retention of the entire population’s communications data for 12 months. Liberty launch a claim at the Investigatory Powers Tribunal arguing that interference with electronic communications is a breach of Article 8 (the right to respect for a family life) and Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
2015 - present
2015 - Save Our Human Rights Act
The Conservative Party – with their manifesto commitment to scrap the Human Rights Act – is elected to Government in the May General Election. Liberty is ready, and launches the Save Our Human Rights Act campaign. The campaign begins with actors, including Benedict Cumberbatch and Vanessa Redgrave, telling the stories of Liberty clients who have used the Human Rights Act in their pursuit of justice. All the films can be watched here.
2015 - Scottish Government supports Human Rights Act
As pressure continues to grow on the plan to scrap the HRA, Rt Hon Nicola Sturgeon MSP commits her Government to resisting any attempt to dilute our human rights protections.
2015 - Human Rights Act banner
To mark 800 years of Magna Carta, Parliament commissions an exhibition in Westminster Hall of 18 banners by nine artists. The exhibition, which covers themes related to “the movements and moments which made a difference in the journey to the rights and representation that are enjoyed today”, does not include a banner of the Human Rights Act. Fortunately, Liberty is able to right this oversight by creating and presenting a banner of the HRA to Parliament.
2015 - Liberty represent MPs Tom Watson and David Davis in case against Government
After the rushed introduction of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA) in 2014, Liberty, Tom Watson MP and David Davis MP launch a legal challenge arguing that DRIPA is incompatible with the Human Rights Act and EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
2015 - GCHQ revealed to intercept communications of human rights groups
Liberty, Privacy International, Amnesty International, ACLU and a number of other national human rights organisations from around the world bring proceedings against GCHQ in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT).
The Tribunal finds that GCHQ breached its own internal – and secret – policies on the interception, examination and retention of email from two organisations, violating their rights under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act.
Nine days after announcing its ruling, the IPT reveals the two organisations that were spied on were Amnesty International and Legal Resources Centre – not the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights who the Tribunal initially stated was subject to unlawful surveillance.
2015 - The spectre of the Snoopers’ Charter returns
Government introduces the draft Investigatory Powers Bill. It constitutes an astonishing assault on all of our internet security.
2016 - The fight that is never done: Shami Chakrabarti steps down and Martha Spurrier is appointed new director
After fourteen years at Liberty – and twelve as director – Shami Chakrabarti announces she is to leave the organisation. She writes:
“It has been the most enormous privilege to lead Liberty for the past 12 years. With members, colleagues, lawyers, journalists and politicians from across the spectrum, we have held three Prime Ministers and six Home Secretaries to account.
“Liberty’s first President E.M. Forster rightly called defending civil liberties ‘the fight that is never done’. I leave Liberty secure in the knowledge that we’re stronger and more ready for that fight than ever.”
A competitive recruitment process begins, with campaigner and barrister Martha Spurrier being appointed as new director.
Martha comes to Liberty with an exceptional track record in defending people’s rights, raising awareness of threats to fundamental freedoms and holding the state to account for neglect, abuse and mistreatment.
2016 - Public Space Protection Orders popping up across the country
PSPOs allow councils to criminalise particular, non-criminal activities taking place within a specified area. Proposals currently under consideration would restrict rights protected under the Human Rights Act – in particular Article 8 (right to private and family life), Article 10 (right to freedom of expression) and Article 11 (right to protest and freedom of association).
Liberty writes to a number of councils, including Salford, Oxford and Newport, urging them to scrap unjustified plans. This results in a radical overhaul of proposals being put forward.
2016 - No Snoopers’ Charter campaign kicks off
Work continues on the Investigatory Powers Bill as it makes its way through Parliament at top speed. Three cross-party Parliamentary committees criticise the Bill, highlighting a raft of serious concerns with the Bill.
Liberty’s No Snoopers’ Charter campaign continues on all fronts. Detailed briefings are written and MPs lobbied, newspaper comment pieces appear in a raft of publications, and an exciting video is created and widely shared.
An exhibition charting Liberty’s history opens in London tomorrow as the human rights group prepares to celebrate its 80th birthday. Liberty80 – The Anniversary Exhibition is being held at St-Martin-in-the-Fields church – the very spot Liberty’s founders first met back in 1934
Writers have always been a big part of Liberty. Since our very inception, as the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) in 1934, they’ve played a key role in our fight to protect civil liberties and promote human rights in Britain.