Victory in school mum snooping case

02 August 2010

Today the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) ruled unlawful Poole Borough Council’s surveillance of mum-of-three Jenny Paton and her family. 

The Council had subjected the whole family, including the children, to surveillance for three weeks in 2008. It claimed that it was acting under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), in order to discover whether the family lived within the catchment area where the children went to school. But the IPT ruled that was not a proper purpose and nor was it necessary to use the surveillance powers.

Today’s landmark ruling is the first time these intrusive powers – controversially granted to local authorities under RIPA – have been challenged at an open hearing before the IPT.

Corinna Ferguson, Legal Officer for Liberty, said:

“Intrusive surveillance is vital to fighting terrorism and serious crime but weak legal protections and petty abuses of power bring it into disrepute. Former Ministers claimed that the innocent had nothing to fear but the sinister treatment of Jenny and her kids proves that these powers need to be far more tightly restricted and supervised.”

The IPT also found that the surveillance breached the family’s right to privacy under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act.

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NOTES TO EDITORS

1. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) regulates the use and access of targeted surveillance by public bodies. In a move welcomed by Liberty, the new Government is reviewing the use of RIPA powers by local authorities as part of the Counter Terror Review announced by the Home Secretary last month. In the Coalition agreement it stated that the Government would limit local authority use of RIPA to “stopping serious crime” and only when approved by a magistrate.

2. Liberty has long called for a comprehensive review of RIPA powers and authorisation processes and has asked for the following:

a. All interception of communications and intrusive surveillance to be authorised by judicial warrant.
b. All other types of surveillance to be independently authorised and depending on the level of intrusion, some powers may require authorisation by a magistrate.
c. The number of public bodies that have access to surveillance powers to be reduced.
d. The purposes for which intrusive surveillance can be authorised to be restricted in scope.
e. An overhaul of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal procedure where most applications for review of surveillance powers must go but which is fundamentally flawed.

3. Liberty has produced an introductory guide to RIPA, which is available here: http://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/issues/3-privacy/pdfs/ripa-powers.pdf
 
4. In 2003, in a case brought by Liberty in its own name and on behalf of a client, the IPT ruled that it could hold hearings to determine legal issues in public. Jenny Paton’s case is the first in which the IPT has held a public hearing to consider a complaint substantively. The IPT deals with complaints about surveillance but also interception of communications. Prior to today’s ruling it had only ever found in favour of complainants on three occasions.
 
5. Jenny Paton was placed under surveillance by Poole Borough Council in 2008 to check that she lived in her declared school catchment area. The case caused outrage yet it only came to light because it was incidentally revealed to Ms Paton that she and her family had been under surveillance. The surveillance lasted three weeks and included council officers spying on the family home, trailing Ms Paton’s young daughters and recording the family’s movements.