Secretive surveillance powers openly challenged for the first time

05 November 2009

A hearing examining the controversial use of covert surveillance by a local authority begins today. This landmark case is the first time these powers – granted to local authorities under the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) – will be challenged at an open hearing before the Investigatory Powers Tribunal.

Liberty represents the complainant, Jenny Paton, and hopes to deal a blow to frivolous use of these intrusive powers.

James Welch, legal director at Liberty and representing Jenny Paton, said:

“Jenny Paton is bringing a vital test case on behalf of ordinary members of the British public. If a mother going about her lawful business can be followed and spied upon in this – frankly very creepy – fashion, where does that leave the rest of us?

It is to be hoped the IPT upholds her complaint. But if it does not and the council’s actions are judged appropriate, we should all be very worried indeed.”

There is no ‘right to know’ under RIPA, meaning that complaints about covert surveillance cannot often be brought as individuals have no idea they have been targeted.

Contact Bridget Beale on 020 7378 3677 or 07973 831 128 NOTES TO EDITORS

1. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) regulates the use and access of surveillance by public bodies. On 17 April the Government announced a long-overdue review of RIPA, albeit limited in scope.

2. Liberty’s response to the consultation called for five main changes – set out below. It is clear from the Government’s statement that it does not plan to go far enough towards reforming the Act. Liberty’s full consultation response is available here (PDF) and more information can be obtained by calling Bridget Beale on 020 7378 3677.

Overview of the main changes Liberty is calling for:
a. All interception of communications and intrusive surveillance should be authorised by judicial warrant.
b. All other types of surveillance should 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 should be reduced.
d. The purposes for which intrusive surveillance can be authorised need to be restricted in scope.
e. The Investigatory Powers Tribunal is where most applications for review of surveillance powers must go, but the procedure is fundamentally flawed and needs to be overhauled.

3. Liberty has produced an introductory guide to RIPA, which is available here (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 will hold a public hearing to consider a complaint substantively. The IPT deals with complaints about surveillance but also interception of communications. It has only ever found in favour of complainants on three occasions.

5. Jenny Paton was placed under surveillance by Poole Borough Council last year 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.