Need a licensed Private Investigator in the UK?

Don’t hold your breath…


It would probably seem like something from the Dark Ages to an American, but in the UK we still do not require a licence to be a Private Investigator. So any old villain can set up and operate. And some do!


Of recent times our news media have been littered with stories of Private Investigators stepping over the red line of what the Law will tolerate. They have paid the price.


Yet, there is no regulation of Private Investigators whatsoever. No licence required. No qualifications. No criminal records check. Nothing. If I say I am a PI; I am a PI.


The most notorious recent case involved a so-called “Private Investigator” who worked for the News of the World, then part of News International, a holding of News Corp.


This man hacked into the private voicemails of everyone and anyone that the paper wanted to make a story on. That included the Royal Family. He was imprisoned for six months in 2007 for hacking Prince William and Kate’s phones.


Perhaps the most disgraceful stunt that he was implicated in was to hack the phone of a young girl who had gone missing called Amanda “Millie” Dowler. She had disappeared in mysterious circumstances whilst walking home from school in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey.


During the time Millie Dowler was missing, the phone hackers accessed her voicemail. Some voicemails were deleted. This gave her parents false hope that she might still be OK.

A nationwide search for her ended tragically when her body was found. She had been brutally murdered.


Subsequently it was discovered that the PI had been involved in the hacking of over 4700 phones of the “Rich and Famous” and many other private individuals besides. In 2013 he was convicted again and received a 6 month suspended sentence.


In the resulting furore, a Public Inquiry was held by The Rt Hon Lord Justice Leveson. Politicians raged, innocent victims of the hacking had their days in court, tabloid newspaper editors quaked and the News of the World closed down in abject shame.


Of course, the PI concerned had conspired with others who were equally culpable - if not more so. The commissioning editor gripped the rail at the Old Bailey and languished at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.


There is still nothing to stop the PI continuing in our chosen profession, now that he has served his time. He didn’t have a licence to operate. He didn’t need one! So no authority can disqualify him.


In the US about 95% of states have licensing protocols for Private Investigators. A few states still appear to be “thinking about it”.


Most states have established a minimum standard of competency for aspirant Private Investigators.

They have carried out a criminal records check and run some form of background check.


So what are the benefits of all PIs having a licence?


It is probably fair to say that PIs are initially viewed with a degree of curiosity, and then a little suspicion creeps in, fuelled by negative press stories. At least US citizens can know that most US PIs have got a licence to operate from their home state. That is not so in the UK.


In America, PIs enjoy a greater access to certain databases than does the general public - purely because they have been subject to licensing.


In the UK, PIs have no greater access than any other citizen. Everything we can lawfully access is Open Source Intelligence or must have the written authority of the subject.


UK PIs can only dream about being able to check a person’s criminal record without the individual’s written permission. In the US it’s public record. Here that is viewed as protecting the (criminal) individual’s civil liberties. In the US, public access to the public record is seen as protecting the public. How sensible is that?


There are inconsistencies in the US system, in that every state has its own legislature. Cross border issues can arise. Is one entitled to operate as a PI in a neighbouring state? Does one’s GPS tracker breach a neighbouring state’s laws? Can one carry a concealed weapon over the state line?


There is not one federal body that US PIs must to be members of, although most states do have professional associations.

As in the UK, those associations vary in size and influence.


Similarly, in the UK there is not one overarching body for the profession. HM Government intends it to be the Security Industry Authority. The SIA currently regulates the likes of Door Supervisors, CCTV Operators and Vehicle Removers.


We have a somewhat bewildering array of Private Investigator organisations vying for membership. All position themselves as the most representative of the professional PI. They usually offer expensive online training courses, which must be passed as a condition of membership. They offer access to a network of agents. The networks pass work amongst their members, affording wider geographic cover.


In general, those organisations would welcome formal accreditation for Private Investigators.


The harsh reality is that when we sub-contract out some of our work, we do not know if our sub-contractor has any relevant training, skills, insurance, or if they have a criminal record. He or she might be highly educated or might not have so much as a primary school swimming certificate!


That is why when we look for a sub-contractor, UK Private Investigators often turn to colleagues they know are ex-police or ex-military.


There is a political inertia on the subject of licensing. No one can decide exactly when there will be proper oversight. No one can decide on just what training is appropriate. No one can decide on entry standards. Will there be “Grandfather’s Rights” exempting those with no formal training but who have been in the game for years?


Our American colleagues don’t really know with whom they are dealing when they commission work in the UK.


This same dilemma is presented to our potential clients. Certainly, our clients in the legal profession are aware that we are a mixed bunch, which does not have any formal accreditation. That fact alone makes lawyers wary about hiring a PI.

The best they can do is to try to divine something positive about us, work with us once and then decide whether they can continue to work with us.


The thorny issue of licensing British Private Investigators has drifted in and out of the political agenda for years. It was supposed to become reality this year but appears to have slipped yet again. The latest guess is that sometime in late 2015 will see the inception of licensing.


Formal education and accreditation will not keep bad people out of any profession, but there is a benchmark at least.


Licensing may not prevent the mad or the bad from becoming Private Investigators, but at least if they are discovered, they can be thrown out.


We all hope that the people we work with are genuine, able, individuals who have integrity and tenacity. But we have no yardstick. We have no licence.


Licensing of UK Private Investigators cannot come soon enough.


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Michael “Mick” Meaney is an ex-Metropolitan Police Officer and the founder of Hyperion Investigations, an investigative company in Epping, Essex.


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