Last week, the Supreme Court handed down judgment in R (Catt and T) v Commissioner of Metropolitan Police, overturning the earlier judgment of the Court of Appeal.

Mr Catt had objected “to the retention on a police database of records of his participation in political demonstrations going back to 2005”.  Ms T objected to the retention of a record of a “minor altercation with a neighbour which the latter reported to the police”, concerning an alleged homophobic insult.  On the facts, the court held in both cases that the police were not in breach of the Claimants’ privacy rights.

The court considered the Claimants’ right to “respect for … private and family life, … home and … correspondence”  under Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights.  Broadly, interference with the Article 8 right by a public authority -in this case, the police- can be justified if it is:

  • in accordance with the law; and also
  • necessary to meet certain “public interest” criteria, including the prevention of disorder or crime.

On the facts, the court was satisfied that the police had acted in accordance with the law, both under the Data Protection Act and pursuant to a police statutory code of practice and guidance.  

Whilst Mr Catt was an elderly peaceful demonstrator, the material held by the police was noted to be “relevant not primarily for the purpose of establishing criminality against Mr Catt but for the purpose of studying the methods and organisation of a violent organised group whose demonstrations he attends”.  It was also noted that the information recorded was not intimate or sensitive, nor obtained by intrusive means, but concerned public activities which had been observed by uniformed police.  The court also considered that the consequences of restricting the ability of the police to keep such records would potentially be very serious for police operations involving matters such as organised crime, terrorism, drug distribution and football hooliganism.

The record of Ms T’s alleged homophobic insult was described as “a relatively trivial act of rudeness between neighbours who did not get on”.  By the time of the hearing, the police had reviewed their stance of normally retaining such records for at least seven years.  They decided to delete Ms T’s records after less than three years, on the grounds that there were no ongoing concerns regarding risk, nor any reports of further incidents.  The court held that by adopting this flexible approach, the police had not infringed Ms T’s article 8 rights.