My HRA: Jenny Paton

Posted by on 22 February 2013

Of all our Human Rights Act’s fundamental freedoms, none attracts controversy like Article 8 – the right to a private and family life. Barely a day passes without it being demonised. Only a week ago the Home Secretary launched another attack on the judiciary’s handling of Article 8 in immigration cases.

Such criticism is misinformed and misplaced. Today we concentrate on what Article 8 does do – and how it helped mum-of-three Jenny Paton – in the latest of our new Common Values series of blogs and films.

In 2008, Poole Council received an anonymous tip-off that Jenny’s family were lying about living in a certain school catchment area. In reality they’d lived at the property in question for more than 10 years. Nevertheless, the local authority saw fit to subject them to covert, James Bond-style surveillance.

For three weeks officials sat outside their home, making notes and taking photographs - and even tailed Jenny, and partner Tim, while they drove her children to school. The family had no idea – until the surveillance was revealed at a meeting with the Council’s Children and Young People’s Department.

“After 50 minutes of really quite rigorous questioning, we were told we’d been under surveillance,” Jenny says. “They slid some notes across the table and there it was – three or four pages of surveillance notes listing us as ‘targets’; listing the children as ‘targets’. I can’t quite explain the shock.”

When the family quizzed officials about their rights, the meeting was promptly ended. “We were asked to leave,” Jenny remembers. “We were told quite clearly that these were the powers that they had. They were going to use them; they were entitled to use them.”

Jenny was stunned. “It was a revelation to me that any old person from the council – anybody – with less than a few hours training in surveillance techniques could just hop into their car and start tailing us,” she recalls. “It just seemed so overblown. I felt that my family had been violated. There’s something quite creepy about knowing that somebody has been outside your house taking photographs of you and making notes.”

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal found that Poole Council had breached Article 8. “I felt justified in my outrage,” Jenny continues. “I felt that the action I’d taken had been worth it – not for me personally, as such, but it did lead to changes in legislation that I felt made the whole battle worthwhile.”

Jenny’s ordeal makes her a fervent defender of the Human Rights Act. “I know it’s always looked upon as saving terrorists and people who should be deported,” she adds. “But actually in my view the most vulnerable people in the community should be protected. You can’t just have human rights just for some people and not for everybody. In my case – and I’m sure in many other cases – it has come to my aid. We wouldn’t have won the case without it.”

Watch: David Harewood tells Jenny's story