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Hull’s VIP Communications and Ofcom to feature in UK Supreme Court’s Manchester debut

Manchester Civil Justice Centre

The Supreme Court will be sitting for the first time at the Manchester Civil Justice Centre next week, from Monday 6 to Thursday 9 March 2023.

The visit will be the first time that the court has sat outside of one of the four UK capital cities, having previously sat in Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff.

The jaunt outside of London is part of a drive to make the workings of the Supreme Court more transparent, or in its own words: “The Supreme Court is committed to being one of the most open and accessible courts in the world, and warmly invites members of the public and media to witness its proceedings.

“For anyone who has been curious about the workings of the UK’s highest court, the sittings in Manchester are the perfect opportunity to see the Court in operation locally.”

Of particular interest to the local media and communications industry, however, could be the judgement the court is due to pass down on Wednesday March 8 in the case of Hull’s currently in-liquidation VIP Communications vs Secretary of State for the Home Department. The Supreme Court website reveals that:

“The Respondent VIP Communications was a company specialising in commercial multi–user gateways (“COMUGs”), a system which enables phone calls and text messages from landlines to be routed directly on to mobile networks. The Appellant is concerned that COMUGs give rise to national security and public safety concerns. This is because the COMUG system means that information identifying the caller is not conveyed to the network making identification almost impossible.

In 2017 Ofcom issued a direction stating its intention to make regulations exempting COMUGs from licensing requirements. In response the Secretary of State directed Ofcom that COMUGs should not be exempted. The Respondent brought Judicial Review proceedings arguing that the Secretary of State acted beyond their powers in giving the direction. The High Court and the Court of Appeal found that the Respondent was correct. The Secretary of State now appeals to the Supreme Court.”

A rough non-legal translation, and this should by no means be taken as legal advice, appears to be that VIP was using COMUGs, a system which enables almost unidentifiable telecommunications activities. Ofcom planned in 2017 to make these systems exempt from licensing requirements. The Secretary of State overruled Ofcom on national security and public safety grounds. VIP then appealed the decision and won, and the Secretary of State has now taken the matter to the Supreme Court.

The last hearing for the case appears to have taken place in October 2020 judging by the documents available on the Supreme Court website, so it’ll probably come as a relief to both parties to have matters settled in Manchester next week.

The Supreme Court adds on its website: “Please note that appeal in the matter of R (on the application of VIP Communications Ltd (In Liquidation)) (Respondent) v Secretary of State for the Home Department (Appellant) has been heard by the Supreme Court and is currently awaiting judgment.”

Lord Reed, President of the UK Supreme Court, will be accompanied in Manchester by Lord Hodge, Deputy President of the UK Supreme Court, Lord Lloyd-Jones, Lord Burrows, Lord Stephens, Lady Rose and Lord Richards when the Court sits in Courtroom 47 of the Manchester Civil Justice Centre.

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