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European Court rules against UK in ‘domestic extremism’ protest database case

Last week in its decision in Catt v UK the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Police had breached the applicant’s right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

John Catt is a 93 year old peace activist who found that he was included on the police’s national domestic extremism database, which noted his participation in protest activity with an activist group named ‘Smash EDO’. Crucially, Mr Catt had not committed any criminal offences, nor was he suspected of committing any offences by the police. Instead the police had argued that it was necessary to keep track of individuals such as him in order to build up a more detailed intelligence picture of the groups such as Smash EDO that they were monitoring.

The UK Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that although there had been an interference with Mr Catt’s Article 8 rights, that interference had been justified because it was in the pursuit of a legitimate aim, in accordance with the law and necessary and proportionate. The decision was criticised by groups such as Defend the Right to Protest, who argued that if snooping on an entirely innocent and peaceful individual was necessary for the purposes of the law, then it was difficult to see what purpose the law served.

The European Court declined to rule decisively on the ‘accordance with the law’ aspect but was critical of the “loosely defined notion of domestic extremism and the fact aht applicants’ data could potentially be retained indefinitely”. However the Court found that the interference was not necessary in a democratic society.

The Court found that there were no robust provisions for the deletion of Mr Catt’s data once it became disproportionate to continue to retain it. There was a lack of effective safeguards to prevent against abuse. The Court was also critical of the fact that the police had failed to adhere to their own nebulous definition of “domestic extremism”, in that they had kept tabs on Mr Catt attending lawful political events, noting that “such events are a vital part of the democratic process.”

The Court also asserted that the Government should not simply be able to argue that it would be too administratively burdensome to delete entries from the database.

This decision has been welcomed by privacy campaigns and protest groups such as Netpol, will have important implications on the state’s retention of records and pushes the pendulum back in favour of the privacy rights of individuals. It should not be taken as outlawing the police practice of retaining a database of political activists’ activities, but requires that the police implement proper provisions for removing entries from that database.

Decisions such as this demonstrate the importance of individuals having power over data that is collected about them by the state and amongst the backdrop of the recently introduced GDPR it appears that individuals are being given back more power to assert their rights.

If you have concerns about your data being held by the state (whether relating to political activism or otherwise) our specialist civil liberties/data protection solicitors may be able to assist you Call us on 020 3811 3592 or make an enquiry online..

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