Data Protection Act makes a mockery of open justice

A decision by the Information Tribunal published recently has further fueled my belief that the Data Protection Act is the worst piece of legislation currently on the books. The Press Gazette reported the result of London Borough of Camden v Information Commissioner in which the Tribunal upheld Camden’s decision to keep secret the names of those issued with anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs).

David Farrer, deputy chairman of the tribunal, said in the ruling that publishing the identity of ASBO recipients, even when the order was still in effect, could cause “unjustified humiliation” and may violate the Data Protection Act.

The Tribunal’s main concern was not about the rights of the law abiding public to live free from fear of vandals or open justice but that disclosure might be “unwarranted by reason of prejudice to the rights and freedoms or legitimate interests of the ASBO subjects.”

I’m all for protecting the privacy of individuals but when we’re dealing with sentences given out in a so-called open court that is funded entirely by the taxpayer, it cannot be right to keep secret the results of the criminal justice system from the people who pay for it and in whose name it operates.

Another surprising circumstance of this case is that the original requester of the information – David Leigh of the Guardian – was not even informed of the Tribunal hearing despite much of the argument being about the reason for his request and what he planned to do in his investigation.

The fact is that every ASBO is made in public in the sense that any adult can supposedly attend court proceedings. But of course no one does anymore and as a citizen has no rights to use the information he witnesses in court, effectively courts are now becoming the secret cloisters of legal professionals. If councils can now also keep secret their use of ASBOs then we really are moving toward a system of secret justice.

4 Responses to “Data Protection Act makes a mockery of open justice”

  1. Out of interest, why did David Leigh want the names and or/addresses of the ASBO subjects?

    The tribunal document claims that they were not necessary for his research, but you are implying that they were. What was he going to do with them?

  2. Nick Evans says:

    A small matter, but ASBOs are *not* part of the criminal justice system; they’re civil matters. An ASBO is not a “sentence” to punish criminal conduct handed down after trial; it’s an order preventing a person from engaging in conduct that is *not* criminal, but which might lead to criminal behaviour. There’s therefore a significant difference.

    And another small matter: the Tribunal did *not* say that names can be kept secret; it expressly stated that publicity should be the norm *at the time o the decision*. Indeed, Camden does publish details of ASBOs from time-to-time. see an example at: http://www.camden.gov.uk/ccm/content/press/2004/september/100-asbos-to-help-cut-anti-social-behaviour.en;jsessionid=4D231BCDB961F2FBE0C47D4545A7A099.node2

    What the Tribunal said was that giving out *all* of the names and addresses, regardless of how long after the making of the ASBO and regardless of how the publicity might affect the conduct of the person concerned, how it might affect the remainder of the ASBO, or whether that particular person was in a vulnerable situation where it wouldn’t be appropriate to publish their personal details. Particularly where there was no particular reason to have the names and addresses themselves: Mr Leigh claimed that he was researching the effectiveness of ASBOs. He could have done this just as easily if the recipients were all given an identifying number.

    Shockingly, Mr Leigh appears to have taken a very partial view of the decision.

    I agree, though, that it is daft for him not to be notified of the decision – or even joined as an interested party.

  3. Roy Benford says:

    I am old enough to remember when the local paper printed details of all cases that came before the magistrates courts listing the names of guilty parties. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case and the Data Protection Act is often claimed as a reason for withholding the information. It is unfortunate that the example quoted is related to ASBOs. A better example is prosecutions by Lancashire County Council under Section 169A of the Licensing Act 1964, see Lancashire county Council v Information Commissioner decision dated 27th March 2007.

  4. Peter Mc says:

    I had a tribunal hearing a while back and I was told by the ICO that I could not obtain the Chairman’s
    notes under DPA (the FOIA defers to the DPA for your own personal data) becuase these notes were
    made “for their own use only” (!?). Needless to say, the ICO also claimed that their opinion was
    not a legal determination.

    Interestingly, in reference to Open Court hearings, I had hoped to publicise some aspects of my case
    and was advised that an injunction would be sought against me. It is also worth noting that I recall
    section 14 of the Defamation Act only grants absolute privilege to the reporting of “contemporaneous”
    court proceedings.

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