Daily Archives: 1st July 2019

Privacy, the common law and Scotland

In a recent opinion from Lord Bannatyne (B C and Others v Chief Constable Police Service of Scotland and others [2019] CSOH 48), sitting in the Outer House of the Court of Session, we have the first express statement that there is a right of privacy at common law in Scotland. Traditionally in Scotland, privacy law has been dealt with through the European Convention on Human Rights, the Human Rights Act and data protection law.

This case involved a number of police officers who are facing disciplinary proceedings by the Police Service of Scotland for alleged misconduct which is founded upon a number of messages sent via WhatsApp. The messages came into the possession of the professional standards department having been discovered on the phone of an officer who was being investigated in connection with alleged sexual offences.

The messages in question were characterised by Senior Counsel for the Police Service of Scotland in her written submissions as being “on any view, blatantly sexist and degrading, racist, anti-semitic, homophobic, mocking of disability” and included “a flagrant disregard for police procedures by posting crime scene photos of current investigations.” [para 166] Lord Bannatyne believed that it was “a characterisation which a reasonable person having regard to the content of the messages would be entitled to reach. I conclude that the content of the messages can be regarded as potentially informing the issue of breach of Standards in circumstances calling into question the impartial discharge of the petitioners’ duties.” [para 166]

In terms of the common law right to privacy, the starting point for Lord Bannatyne was the relationship between the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Common Law. He quoted Lord Reid, with approval, in R (Osborn) v The Parole Board at paragraph 57 of that judgment. From that passage Lord Bannatyne concluded that if the right to privacy exists at common law, Article 8 of the convention does not supersede it. Lord Bannatyne noted that the European jurisprudence could be used to help inform and develop a common law right to privacy.

He then went on to ask whether there was a justification for a right to privacy in the common law. He cited, with approval, the words of Lord Nicholls at paragraph 12 of the judgment in Campbell v MGN Ltd. Lord Bannatyne thought that the right to privacy could “be described as a core value and one which is inherent in a democratic and civilised state.” [para 106]. He continued:

“[it] seems to flow from the centrality of the role of privacy in a democratic society and particularly in a society where electronic storage of information and electronic means of intrusion into the private lives of a citizen by government, private organisations and individuals are growing exponentially the common law should recognise the right to privacy.” [para 107]

Lord Bannatyne considered that the English authority on the point was of assistance. In England and Wales the common law on privacy has been developed in the context of the development of the law on breach of confidence. Scotland also has a concept of breach of confidence, which is a well understood remedy and it has been explicitly accepted previously that the law in Scotland in respect of breach of confidence is the same as the law in respect of breach of confidence in England and Wales (see, for example, Lord Advocate v Scotsman Publications).

At paragraph 116 of his opinion, Lord Bannatyne observed “that given privacy is a fundamental right I think it highly likely that it exists in the common law of Scotland.” He also noted that it was “inherently unlikely” that Scottish and English law in relation to this fundamental matter are entirely different.

Finally, he considered the existing case law in Scotland (to the extent that there is any) tended to support the view that such a right exists in the law of Scotland. He also found it “noteworthy” that none of the cases to which he was referred expressly or implicitly stated that there was no common law right to privacy in Scotland.

Lord Bannatyne went on to consider that the Petitioners could have “no reasonable expectation of privacy” flowing “from the attributes which arise as a result of their position as constables.” [para 166] It is not the case that police officers, as a result of their position, have no right to privacy at all, but, rather, that this right is limited. Lord Bannatyne opines that the limitation can be defined in the following way: “f their behaviour in private can be said to be potentially in breach of the Standards in such a way as to raise doubts regarding the impartial performance of their duties then they have no reasonable expectation of privacy.” [para 168] A police officer, because of the attributes of a person holding the office of constable, is in a different position to an ordinary member of the public. [para 168]

The remaining issues that had to be dealt with by Lord Bannatyne were dealt with in, comparably, fairly short compass. Lord Bannatyne held that “there is a clear and accessible basis for the disclosure [by the police, as a public authority, to the professional standards branch of Police Scotland] in the circumstances of this case.” [para 192] He also held that the disclosure decision was not an arbitrary one. [para 192]

Lord Bannatyne also held the interference was necessary, in accordance with Article 8(2) of the Convention. He did not agree that all of the matters listed in Article 8(2) were engaged, but did hold that ‘public safety’ and ‘the prevention and detection of crime’ were engaged. [para 198] In terms of the balancing exercise to be carried out, Lord Bannatyne considered that the balance was“heavily weighted on the side of disclosure” and he was “unable to identify a less intrusive measure which could have been used without unacceptably comprising the objectives [he had] identified.” [para 201]

Finally, in respect of interdict, Lord Bannatyne held that even if he had been with the Petitioners he would nevertheless have held that the Petitioners were not entitled to the interdict which they sought. [para 202]

This is an important case as it is the first time that a Scottish court has expressly declared that there is a common law right to privacy in Scotland. That, however, has to be tempered with the fact that it is a decision of the Outer House and therefore only of persuasive authority in the Court of Session and lower courts. A different Lord Ordinary (or a Sheriff) may ultimately reach a different conclusion (although, I think that unlikely). Although, the Petitioners were right on this point, they ultimately lost the case and the petition was refused. Therefore there may well be a reclaiming motion (appeal) to the Inner House and this point may well be considered and decided upon by the Inner House. This would give us binding authority which all the lower courts in Scotland would be required to follow stating that there is a common law right to privacy in Scotland.

The decision will certainly add an additional tool to the armory of individuals who are concerned about their privacy and breaches thereof; it will also be another angle which those advising on issues of privacy will have to consider. We may begin to see more cases proceed on the basis of a breach of the common law right to privacy as opposed to cases proceeding on breaches of convention rights and data protection law.

Alistair Sloan

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