Search Warrants

Current project status

  • Initiation: Could include discussing scope and terms of reference with lead Government Department
  • Pre-consultation: Could include approaching interest groups and specialists, producing scoping and issues papers, finalising terms of project
  • Consultation: Likely to include consultation events and paper, making provisional proposals for comment
  • Policy development: Will include analysis of consultation responses. Could include further issues papers and consultation on draft Bill
  • Reported: Usually recommendations for law reform but can be advice to government, scoping report or other recommendations

We plan to publish a consultation paper in spring 2018.

In December 2016, the Home Office invited the Law Commission to conduct a year-long review to identify and address pressing problems with the law governing search warrants and to produce reform which will clarify and rationalise the law.

A search warrant is an order of a court authorising a police officer or other official to enter a building or other place and search it for articles of a kind specified in the warrant. It sometimes also confers power to seize or remove the articles or (when the articles are documents) to take copies or extracts.

The most common type of search warrant is issued under section 8 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, often known as PACE. This is issued to a police officer, normally by a justice of the peace; it can also be issued by a High Court judge or a circuit judge. The justice or judge must be satisfied that there is reason to believe that an indictable offence has been committed and that relevant evidence can be found on the premises.

There have been numerous court cases in the last decade involving challenges, either to the decision to issue a search warrant or to the way the warrant was executed. One issue for this project is to identify the most pressing problems generating this litigation and how the law could be reformed so as to reduce the need for challenge.

Apart from PACE, there are up to 150 other powers to issue search warrants. In some cases the warrant is issued to an official other than a police officer, for example to an immigration officer. Also in some cases the search is for something other than evidence of an offence, for example firearms and explosives. Nevertheless there are many types of warrant which appear to overlap in scope with warrants under PACE or with each other. There are also many differences between the different types of warrant, both as to the conditions for issue and as to the authority conferred: some of these differences may be unnecessary. A second issue for the project is whether the law could be simplified and streamlined, either by reducing the number of powers or by standardising their conditions.

Project details

Area of law

Criminal law


Professor David Ormerod QC