writ of assistance

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A documentary authorization to search unspecified premises for smuggled goods, first issued to English customs officials in 1662. They are issued by the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court at the beginning of the monarch's reign and remain valid until six months after the end of that reign, during which time they are lodged at various customs (now Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs) offices, where the senior manager is responsible for their custody and use.

Following a decision of the European Court of Human Rights in which a search by French Customs officials investigating currency offences was considered to be a breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as it was carried out under a statutory power of search without a warrant, s 161 of the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979 was modified by s 25 of the Finance Act 2005 so that the use of the writ is limited to urgent situations where the delay caused by seeking a search warrant to search premises for smuggled goods is likely to result in such goods being destroyed or moved to another location. Where considerations of urgency do not apply, officers of HMRC, like police officers, are required to apply for a search warrant. The power of entry conferred by the writ may not be exercised ‘by night’ (between the hours of 11pm and 5am) unless the HMRC officer is accompanied by a constable.

Subjects: Law.

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