Important new privacy judgment: police retention of protestor’s data not an Article 8 infringement

The Admin Court (Gross LJ and Irwin J) has handed down judgment this week in Catt v Association of Chief Police Officers and Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis [2012] EWHC 1471 (Admin). It is an extremely important judgment on Article 8 ECHR in the context of personal information retained for policing purposes. It is also notable for its analysis of protest as an inherently public activity.

The background

ACPO launched a National Domestic Extremism Database containing information provided by police forces. The Metropolitan Police subsequently assumed responsibility for the database. The database contained information relating to the attendance by the claimant (an 87-year old protestor of good character) at various political protests made by a group called “Smash EDO”. Smash EDO opposes a US arms manufacturer with a factory in Brighton; its activities have often involved violent disorder and criminality (though apparently not by the claimant), necessitating a substantial police presence. Police officers overtly gathered information (including photographic and video material) at those protests. They then compiled reports on the protests, identifying a number of individuals including the claimant. The information at issue in this case comprised those sorts of reports – they were about incidents rather than the claimant per se, although the claimant was identified in the reports. The defendants retained that information pursuant to the statutory Code of Practice on the Management of Police Information, made under the Police Acts 1996 and 1997, and associated Guidance on the Management of Police Information.

The issues

The overarching issue was whether this infringed Mr Catt’s rights under Article 8 ECHR, the right to respect for private life.

It is important (if not entirely surprising) to note how the parties and the Court saw Article 8 and the Data Protection Act 1998 interacting (see paragraph 6(iv)). All agreed that the DPA was theoretically in play, but added nothing: if the Article 8 claim succeeded then the DPA claim was not needed; if Article 8 was engaged, but the interference was justified, then the DPA claim would automatically fail; if Article 8 was not engaged, the prospects of success under the DPA were negligibly remote.

The issues were therefore: (i) whether there was an interference with the claimant’s rights under Article 8(1), and (ii) if so, whether this interference was justified. The Court said no on both counts, by application of the authorities to three crucial findings.

Crucial findings

First, the Court accepted the need for such information to be retained by the police. Gross LJ said this at paragraph 19:

“… the use of intelligence is a fundamental policing tool.  Investigators need the ability to identify relationships within protest groups. Likewise, they need to be able to identify individuals associated with the use of particular tactics, together with those with a propensity to violence, disorderly behaviour and organised coordinated actions.  Although Mr. Catt has not been convicted of any offence, the evidence, which again I accept, is that his close association with violent members of Smash EDO and knowledge of this association is of intelligence value.  Such knowledge forms part of a “far wider picture of information”… needed by the police, inter alia, to investigate incidents of criminality and to assist the policing of future events.”

Secondly, “the essential nature of such activity [protesting] is that it is of a public nature. Indeed, its very object is to make others aware of his views and the causes to which he lends his support” (paragraph 36).

Thirdly, given the violent disorder which characterised Smash EDO’s activities, it was reasonable to expect the police to gather and retain such information. This was especially so as this information had been gathered by over rather than covert policing.

Issue 1: Article 8(1) neither engaged nor infringed

Given those findings, the Court concluded that the claimant’s rights under Article 8(1) were not engaged at all. The claimant’s reliance on R (Wood) v Commr of Police of the Metropolis [2009] EWCA Civ 414 did not assist: the facts were different, and it would be “unreal and unreasonable” to find an infringement of Article 8(1) in the present case.

Issue 2: interference would in any event be justified

The Court went on to conclude that even if there had been an interference with Article 8(1), this would be justified. The claimant had argued inter alia that he was not personally suspected of criminality and that there was no democratic oversight of the database system. The defendant argued inter alia that, given Smash EDO’s activities, the retention of this sort of information – police reports as opposed, for example, to photos or video material – was reasonably necessary and proportionate.

Gross LJ (with whom Irwin J agreed) had “no hesitation in concluding that any interference with Mr. Catt’s rights was amply justified under Art. 8.2”.

His reasons included the following (paragraph 64):

“Any interference with Mr. Catt’s Art. 8.1 rights was at the margins. The reports, the product of overt policing, did no more than record Mr. Catt’s public activities, the very object of which was to convey his views to as wide an audience as possible.  The reports were compiled and retained for intelligence purposes, in accordance with the Code and the Guidance, with a view to an appropriate police response to a campaign marred by serious, persistent criminality and posing a significant public order problem.”

Irwin J agreed that there was no expectation of privacy here, applying the approach in Campbell v MGN [2004] UKHL 22.

At paragraph 70 he added that it was not easy to see “… how it can affect the engagement of Art 8.1 that the material is recorded by police officers as opposed, say, to journalists; or collated and held within the National Extremism Database, as opposed to a local history archive in the town where the demonstrations have been held.  The latter distinction was advanced by Mr Owen (“the entries were not recorded on any database…”).  The issue is not whether the individual concerned likes or dislikes the thought of the data being held by this or that body: the issue is whether a reasonable expectation of privacy arises.  In my judgment, it does not arise in respect of any of the information in this case.”

Irwin J did, however, add this observation at paragraph 70, which might give rise to interesting arguments in future cases on such issues:

“Different questions might arise if material recorded in that context were collated with material which was private in its nature.  That does not arise in this case.”

What about ongoing retention of this information?

Gross LJ thought it sensible for the police to review its retention of this sort of information when the Smash EDO campaign concludes, but he agreed with Irwin J’s comments at paragraph that 73:

“… even when the Smash EDO campaign ends, it may yet be justifiable to retain some or all of this information.  The picture here is that there are connections between this group and parts of the animal rights movement, active before this group was formed.  It may be a legitimate function of intelligence to keep records of this group after it has ceased to be active, the better to understand the risks associated with after-coming groups with overlapping membership.  To my mind, there is no expectation that a review at a suitable point in the future will conclude otherwise.”

Robin Hopkins