It is 1765 in England, and a case which would change our understanding of civil liberty was being prepared for court. It centred on a bitter feud between the king and the press, and questioned what right individuals have to privacy.

In much the same way as today, life for royals in the 1760s was peppered with criticism by the press. The king at the time, George III, was facing ongoing attention from news publishers, in particular, from a tenacious journalist called John Entick. Entick had published several claims about the king in his pamphlet, which was published under a pseudonym, prompting George to launch an investigation into the author.

The Earl of Halifax, who was the Secretary of State at the time, sent a group of men to Entick’s home on Grub Street to gather evidence that the journalist had written the “false and unfair statements” circulated in the pamphlet. The group included the King’s chief messenger, Nathan Carrington. They searched the house for four hours, breaking open doors and locks, and taking hundreds of documents away with them. They caused a total of £2,000 worth of damage.

Furious, Entick sued the messengers for trespass.

See you in court

The case was heard in Westminster Hall, presided over by the Chief Justice of the time, Lord Camden. The case did not deal with whether or not the men had entered Entick’s home – it was agreed that this did happen – but rather if Carrington and the other messengers had legal authority to search the home.

They claimed that as the Earl of Halifax had warranted it, they were acting legally.  His status, they argued, gave him the right to grant permission.

Lord Camden turned to a set of three legal principles called Dicey’s Rule of Law to make his decision. These rules are the basis on which all law is built, and provide guidance on its interpretation. The second of the three states that equality comes before law. This rule upheld the notion that no person is above the law, no matter what his rank is.

The Ruling

Lord Camden concluded that Halifax didn’t have a right, under statute or under precedent, to issue this kind of warrant. He ruled in favour of Entick and awarded him damages.

The decision confirmed that the power to issue warrants resided in a Justice of the Peace, as the Secretary of State did not have the same power as the Justice of the Peace, there were no grounds for him to order the warrant to begin with. Nobody is above the law and all are equal in its eyes. It was ruled that public officials have no general power to enter and search someone’s property, unless authorized by statute or common law.

In his famous closing speech, Lord Camden told the court: “We can safely say that there is no law in this country to justify the defendants in what they have done. If there was, it would destroy all the comforts for society, for papers are often the dearest property that a man can have”

The UK and Beyond

As a result of this case, this general principle was established: the state cannot do anything that isn’t expressly authorised by the law, while an individual can do anything except things forbidden by the law.

The Entick case redefined the scope of state power, and established that individuals have a basic right to privacy. As well as changing justice in the UK, the ruling influenced the fourth amendment of the American Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Without this case, we would not have the same protection against trespass that we enjoy today.

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