Police forces should no longer be allowed to store the personal information of peaceful protesters on a domestic extremism database if they are not linked to any crimes, a court heard today.
Lawyers acting for 87-year-old John Catt, who has not been linked to any crimes at demonstrations he has attended, argued that police are maintaining a file on their client simply because his regular presence at protests, in contravention of his right to privacy.
The case has major implications for the way the police go about placing protest groups under surveillance in the future.
Tim Owen QC told the court that the police’s current approach means that students who peacefully march at demonstrations where others are involved in violence could end up on the extremism database because they “happen to be seen at another demonstration”.
He added that the effect of the police’s surveillance of regular, peaceful protesters was that they would come to expect to be placed on a database of domestic extremists.
And the court heard that the police had shown an “almost knee-jerk response” in presuming that anyone who turns up at a protest, regardless of what they do, “their name goes on the list”.
Shamik Dutta of Bhatt Murphy said: “The Court of Appeal will determine whether protesters forego the right to privacy if they engage in peaceful protest. If the appeal is successful, police forces will need to review the way in which they gather and retain information about protesters who have never committed any offence”.
Mr Catt’s lawyers did not argue against police officers placing protesters under surveillance where they thought there was a risk of disorder, but said that there was no reason to keep the information gathered once it became plain that the subject was not linked to any crime, either as a perpetrator or as a witness; as they said was the case with their client.
Keeping the dossier, they argued, was in contravention of his right to privacy.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission and Liberty have both been given permission to intervene. John Wadham, General Counsel of the ECHR, said: “We accept the need for there to be measures to ensure the safety of the public , but these need to be proportionate. The right to protest peacefully in public is a core human right and any measures that restrict this right should be subject to proper scrutiny.
“The Commission is concerned that the retention of material on this database, and the inadequate safeguards for its proper use and deletion, are an unlawful breach of the right to freedom of speech and freedom of protest. The police now need to take measures to ensure that the information they hold does not contravene the law.”
Mr Catt, who has been heavily involved with the Smash EDO campaign – among others, is appealing an earlier High Court ruling, which allowed police to keep photographs and other personal information belonging to him on the National Domestic Extremism Database. Last year, Mr Justice Irwin said that protesters registering their feelings in public had no reasonable expectation of privacy.
The first case followed the refusal of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) to permanently delete all the data retained about Mr Catt, who found 66 entries about him had been made on the National Domestic Extremism Database, including one about his appearance.
His appeal is being heard in the High Court by the Master of the Rolls Lord Dyson, Lord Justice Patten and Lord Justice Tomlinson and continues tomorrow.