Police can keep the personal details of a peaceful protester on a domestic extremism database, despite the fact he has not been convicted of any crime, High Court judges have ruled.
The landmark decision, which means that pictures of and references to 87-year-old John Catt can be held in the dossier against his will, has far-reaching implications for the police’s approach to protests.
Mr Catt, who is of good character and is a long-standing demonstrator on a range of issues, argued his inclusion on the National Domestic Extremism Database breached his human rights and was unlawful.
But today Lord Justice Gross and Mr Justice Irwin dismissed his judicial review claim, ruling that his right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights was not infringed.
“This judgment raises matters of constitutional importance and could impact upon anyone engaging in peaceful protest,” said his lawyer Shamik Dutta of Bhatt Murphy solicitors.
The ruling comes five months after City of London Police was revealed to have included the Occupy London movement – then maintaining a camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral – in a letter warning businesses about potential terrorist threats, alongside al-Qa’ida, the Colombian dissidents Farc and Belarusian terrorists who bombed the Minsk underground.
Lord Justice Gross said the data in issue “is essentially comprised of records, or reports, made by police officers overtly policing demonstrations” of a protest group known as Smash EDO. He said Smash ED0 “is a protest group which has carried on a long-running campaign, calling for the closure of EDO, a US owned arms company carrying on a lawful business and with a factory in Brighton”.
The judge added: “Smash EDO stages regular protests. Although many people at Smash EDO protests do not commit criminal offences, disorder and criminality has been a feature of a number of the protests: over 136 offences have been recorded.
“On one occasion more than £300,000 damage was caused. Harassment of staff has been a feature of this campaign. As a result EDO has spent in excess of £1m in security measures.”
Lord Justice Gross said demonstrations of the nature and persistence of Smash ED0 required an appropriate police response “balancing the facilitation of the right to lawful and peaceful protest with the need to maintain order, minimise the risks of criminal behaviour and safeguard the rights of others”.
It was argued on Mr Catt’s behalf that he had a “reasonable expectation that his privacy would not be invaded by the creation and retention of written information about him by the police”.
The National Public Order Intelligence Unit, which manages the database, kept watch on Mr Catt at more than 55 demonstrations, the court heard in February. Mr Catt’s lawyers claimed he is “logged and recorded wherever he goes” and that the police’s approach had a “chilling effect” on people exercising their right to protest.
“There are so many demonstrations where it is reasonably certain that some people who turn up, do so with the intention using it to commit violence, so the suggestion that police can record anyone present on that basis is worrying,” Tim Owen QC told the court.
He added Mr Catt had come to court to fight for “a citizen’s right lawfully to manifest his political views without being labelled a domestic extremist subject to a special and apparently arbitrary form of state surveillance”.
Judges said that the term ‘domestic extremist’ was not defined in law but is “generally used by the police and associated agencies “to describe the activity of individuals or groups who carry out criminal acts of direct action to further their protest campaign, outside the democratic process”.
Mr Dutta said his client intended to appeal the ruling. He added: “The claim was brought by a peaceful protestor who is of good character. Mr Catt will be seeking permission to appeal the Court’s finding that details about peaceful protestors can be retained on the National Domestic Extremism Database, even when they relate to their exercise of the democratic right to peaceful protest.”
Rejecting Mr Catt’s case, Lord Justice Gross said: “The compilation and retention of the reports were predictable consequences of Mr Catt’s very public activities; they neither engaged nor infringed his right to privacy.”
Mr Justice Irwin said that a reasonable expectation of privacy did not arise in respect of any of the information in the case. “The very essence of public demonstration is to mark, in public, the views and feelings of the demonstrators,” he said.
The judges ruled that even if Mr Catt’s right to privacy had been engaged and interfered with, such interference would be “justified”.
The case followed the refusal of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) to permanently delete all the data retained about Mr Catt.
The Commissioner of Metropolitan Police joined Acpo in court to argue that retention of the data did not breach either human rights or data protection laws. It was argued that if Mr Catt won his case the police would be prevented from recording and retaining important intelligence information that might help prevent crime.