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Poole couple win council snooper battle

Written by Tim Mount on 08 August 2010

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A Dorset woman Jenny Paton and partner Tim Joyce took Poole Borough Council (PBC) to a tribunal after it used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to spy on her family 21 times in relation to the council's belief that she was lying in her application for a school place for her child.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on 9 February 2000 and completed its Parliamentary passage on 26 July. The Bill received Royal Assent on 28 July.

PBC had used the covert surveillance powers under RIPA on 21 occasions between 10 February and 03 March 2008. The surveillance was used to check if the Paton family were living in the catchment area of the over-subscribed and successful Lilliput First School.

Almost 800 public bodies - including 474 local councils - under RIPA assumed powers to snoop through covert surveillance, phone records and private correspondence. It is argued that councils need the powers to target "serious criminals such as fly tippers, rogue traders and benefit fraudsters".

Two phone calls to the council were made by members of the public making formal complaints, alleging that the family was not living at the property in the catchment area. One of which alleged that Miss Paton boasted about pretending to live in the property in the catchment area. The informants claimed the family were living at one house while registering themselves at their previous address, which had not yet been sold.

However as Mr Joyce said:

We even invited the council officers around to tea so we could chat about the application but they took the antagonistic approach.

It is the first time these powers have been challenged at an open hearing before the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) and the IPT ruled it was not a proper purpose and not necessary to use surveillance powers in such circumstances. The IPT further found that the surveillance breached the family's right to privacy under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act.

However PBC have admitted to using the powers on two other occasions regarding the same issue.

Miss Paton said she was delighted and said after the hearing:

It is absolutely brilliant. We are hopeful our case will highlight local authorities' misuse of Ripa [powers].

PBC said it accepted the ruling and in a statement said:

The council accepts fully the ruling of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal and would like to apologise to Miss Paton and her family for any distress caused as a result of its actions in this case.

The council listened to public concerns about this case and subsequently decided that Ripa powers were no longer an appropriate means of investigating potentially fraudulent applications for school places.

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