By Martin Evans
Councils warned over unlawful spying using anti-terror legislation
Councils that use anti-terror legislation to spy on people suspected of minor offences have been warned they could be breaking the law following a landmark legal ruling.
Poole Borough Council was found to have acted unlawfully after subjecting a family to three weeks of covert surveillance to check if they lived in the correct school catchment area.
Town Hall officials claimed they had been acting under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) when they spied on Jenny Paton, 41, her partner Tim Joyce and their three daughters, 21 times over a three week period in 2008.
They wrongly suspected the family of lying about their address to get their daughter into a favoured school, tailing their vehicles and watching their home around the clock.
But in a ruling published on Monday by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, the Council’s use of the Act was ruled “not proportionate”.
It is estimated that tens of thousands of Britons have been subjected to covert surveillance operations by Town Hall officials who suspect them of offences ranging from dog fouling to putting bins out on the wrong day.
Ripa was introduced in 2000 to give the police, security services and the Revenue and Customs service powers to spy on people in the fight against crime and terrorism.
But Councils have been accused of using the legislation as a “snooper’s charter”.
Miss Paton’s victory represents the first time the powers have been challenged at an open hearing and with the Government promising a review of the Act, councils are being warned they could soon lose the powers.
Miss Paton said: “For us this is a victory against the Big Brother state. We brought the case to highlight what an insidious piece of legislation this is and how widespread it is used.
“We only found out that we had been spied upon when the council called us to a meeting to discuss the school application but there are probably tens of thousands of people out there who have been spied upon without even knowing.
“We believe all these people should now be told so that they can challenge their council’s actions in the same way we have.”
The tribunal also found that the surveillance breached the family’s right to privacy under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act.