A short while ago I wrote a post about social workers carrying out surveillance of families that they work with, which has attracted a certain amount of attention. You can read that post here : Social work spies? (Yes, you over there I’m talking to you…).
I’ve had an email from a data protection officer at a local authority expressing concern that the article isn’t correct, so I thought I’d better address it. I’m confident that I haven’t in fact got the law wrong, but I thought it would be useful to explain why – and where I think wires have got crossed.
The DP Officer says this :
RIPA only applies to criminal investigations. She could never get an authorisation as it has to amount to a criminal offence for 12 months or tobacco or licensing.
For non- criminal matters you could do a RIPA type proportionality and necessity test but it falls outside the ambit of the RIPA regime as the Inspectors have previously confirmed.
Lets break that down.
RIPA only applies to criminal investigations?
RIPA isn’t just about criminal matters at all. It defines what surveillance is and how it can be rendered lawful. An authorisation acts as a shield against civil liability (see s27 RIPA). Such potential civil liability might be framed in a number of ways, but might for example arise from the interference with Article 8 rights that covert surveillance would undoubtedly represent.
An authorisation can only be granted if it is necessary on specific grounds. Those include but are not limited to criminal matters :
in the interests of national security;
for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime or of preventing disorder;
in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom;
in the interests of public safety;
for the purpose of protecting public health;
for the purpose of assessing or collecting any tax, duty, levy or other imposition, contribution or charge payable to a government department; or
for any purpose (not falling within [the above] which is specified for the purposes of this subsection by an order made by the Secretary of State.
A narrower list applies to intrusive as opposed to directed surveillance, but the point is RIPA is about the lawfulness of surveillance in general – not about surveillance only for the purpose of a criminal investigation. If further proof of that were needed, see the Home Office Code of Practice which I quoted extensively from in the original post : whilst much of it relates to police activity, there is substantial coverage of surveillance by local authorities.
Ok, next part :
Could a local authority get an authorisation?
It is quite right that a LA could probably not get an authorisation for the sort of social work snooping I’ve described. Although it is possible to see how the sort of covert surveillance we’re talking about might fit under a number of the non-crime headings above, the effect of RIPA insofar as it related to local authorities was adjusted in 2012 :
- firstly via the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, which prevented LAs from granting their own authorisations (they now have to go via a JP),
- and secondly via the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Directed Surveillance and Covert Human Intelligence Sources) (Amendment) Order 2012, which limits the types of local authority investigation that can be authorised – as our correspondent suggests to serious crime and (somewhat randomly) tobacco and licensing. So as far as local authorities post 2012 goes, the list of potential authorisation grounds is considerably narrowed.
So, whilst it might have been possible to obtain a RIPA authorisation for this stuff up until 2012, it doesn’t seem to be possible now.
In my original post I identified all of this, saying :
Since 2012 there are heavy restrictions on what authorisations local authorities are allowed to grant/ apply for (as far as I understand it they are only permitted to authorise directed surveillance where it is for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime or of preventing disorder, and even then only in relation to certain specified types of crime), which is not going to apply for much of what we are looking at. Any authorisation is likely to need judicial approval (from a JP), and it needs to be in place BEFORE you start snooping (see 4.42)…
I did not say in terms that no social worker could ever get an authorisation for this sort of surveillance, but I did say that it was pretty unlikely / challenging and nobody who read my post carefully should have been under any illusion that they could simply grab an authorisation off the shelf and carry on as they were. Having sketched some of the potential difficulties, I made clear I wasn’t going to get in to the detail of the authorisation regime, and that was because the primary purpose of the original post was to encourage professionals to appreciate and confront the fact that what many are doing (and apparently normalising) is in fact covert surveillance, and it is an interference with Article 8 right to privacy of private individuals. Which may have no lawful basis in the absence of a RIPA authorisation.
For the avoidance of doubt I don’t think one can simply say that because RIPA no longer offers a route to authorisation a local authority ‘isn’t covered by RIPA’ and can do whatever it likes with impunity. Whilst Article 8 arguments are unlikely to render the product of covert surveillance inadmissible in children proceedings, because of the countervailing Article 8 and other rights of the child, that does not mean that a civil claim for an interference of Article 8 might not be brought against a local authority if the facts were right. RIPA may not provide the answer, but a discussion of its definitions seemed like a useful framework for raising awareness of the intrusive, contentious and potentially risky conduct that some social workers are engaging in.
So how can we do this stuff lawfully?
My correspondent mentions in her email that I am not a criminal lawyer. I’m not. Nor am I a data protection lawyer. This is not my specific field, but it is an area of crossover, and family lawyers (as well as social workers) need to develop their knowledge in these areas. I don’t hold myself out as any particular expert in the area, but I have taken care writing this and the previous post and have cross checked my view with others on the issues above, who have greater expertise than I and who concur.
In my day job I am in the happy position of being able to frown sternly when social workers describe what sounds like covert surveillance, and then sending them off with a flea in their ear to discuss with the legal department before taking another step. I don’t usually have to deal with what follows but i do know I don’t much like the idea of receiving a brief for a case that is dependent upon covert surveillance of a family by a social worker. It makes things very murky and is a distraction. My view from the perspective of the one who has to run the trial and try and protect a client against Human Rights Act claims, is : spell out in words of one syllable at the start that you are going to be checking up on the family so there is an expectation and an understanding that there is a necessary level of intrusion for a specified purpose. My broader advice to social workers was to go the legal department or relevant designated officers within the local authority to seek guidance before carrying out surveillance. That advice stands.
I’d be interested to know from those who work in local authority legal departments what their experience is of claims and complaints being made arising from covert surveillance by social workers (I’m not aware of any but guess there must be at least some and if there aren’t it must be only a matter of time), and whether anyone else can think of any mechanism by which the risk of such a claim can be removed or reduced (is there any other framework for rendering this type of Article 8 interference lawful that I am missing? for example the police can use PACE to do some things and those don’t need a RIPA authorisation). Quite apart from civil claims under the Human Rights Act I wonder whether there is a risk of adverse Ombudsman decisions, or of regulatory issues for social workers with reference to the HCPC code. There are also potentially significant issues in terms of GDPR / data protection. Thoughts welcome.
A footnote for parents
Parents should also understand that the fact that evidence has been obtained through covert surveillance does not necessarily mean that the court will disregard it, or that a claim can be brought under the Human Rights Act. As with cases where parents make covert recordings of social workers, the court when presented with such material will have to balance the relevance, strength and importance of the material as against any fairness issues that are raised. Ultimately, if it is likely to be evidence that is going to help the court make sound decisions for a child it may well be considered.
Feature pic courtesy of Flood G. on flickr (creative commons – thanks)