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Council slammed over use of surveillance powers

3 August 2010

Poole Borough Council unlawfully used anti-terror surveillance powers to spy on a family it suspected had lied about their address so their children would be in a particular local school’s catchment area, a tribunal has ruled.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 gave local authorities extended powers to use surveillance to fight terrorism but the Act has also been used for purposes unrelated to terrorism to investigate suspected breaches of litter laws and of school admissions rules.

In the first such case to be heard in public, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal said that the local authority’s use of its powers under the Act was in breach of the proper purpose rule and had not been necessary.

For three weeks in 2008, the council placed Jenny Paton’s family under surveillance on suspicion that they were circumventing admission rules to secure a place for her children at the popular Liliput First School.

The IPT also found that the surveillance breached the family’s right to privacy under article 8 of the Human Rights Act.

Harrow Council started proceedings against Mrina Patel earlier this year alleging she had used her mother’s address to get her son in the nearby Pinner Park School, but the case was dropped last month.

Corinna Ferguson, legal officer for Liberty, who supported Jenny Paton’s case, said intrusive surveillance was vital to fighting terrorism and serious crime but that “weak legal protections and petty abuses of power bring it into disrepute”.

Last month, home secretary Theresa May announced it would be reviewing the use of RIPA powers by local authorities.

The coalition agreement also promised that the government would limit local authority use of RIPA to stopping serious crime and only when approved by a magistrate.

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