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UK court backs security ban on anonymised telephone calls system

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A UK court has upheld the Government’s right to ban commercial marketing of a money-saving telephone service on security grounds because it could provide anonymity for callers. The service uses “GSM gateways” that can reduce call charges by rerouting calls through mobile phone SIM cards – but it also allows users to make anonymous calls, potentially avoiding government surveillance.

The Court of Appeal refused to award companies damages for a government licensing system that in effect bans the GSM gateway services they offered and largely halted their business.

Lord Justice Richards said: “Since the time when the existence of GSM gateways first came to light in 2002, the Home Office has maintained that the exemption of commercial operators of such gateways from the licensing regime would be seriously detrimental to public security.” He explained the system thus:

“When a call is routed through a GSM gateway, the caller line identification of the party originating the call is replaced by that of the SIM card in the GSM gateway, so that the identity of the originating caller is masked. This is said to give rise to serious public security concerns for law enforcement agencies in relation to the investigation and prevention of terrorism and serious crime.” (Recall Support Services Limited et al v Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport [2014] EWCA Civ 1370 para 9.)

Recall Support Services and five other firms sought to challenge the ban under a European Union law to encourage the telephony sector to develop. They had originally claimed £415m in damages for alleged losses as a result of the UK Government’s maintenance of a restriction on the commercial use of GSM gateways despite a European Commission directive intended to free up telephony services. Read the rest of this entry

Bank error in your favour? Santander may be coming for you

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Santander Bank in Britain has been given the right to identify and pursue by telephone and email the beneficiaries of erroneous payments – even though the thousands of pounds-worth of errors were made as a result of Santander’s own failings.

The High Court has rejected privacy concerns and ruled that Santander can force other banks to reveal the details of mistaken beneficiaries by issuing a “Norwich Pharmacal” order – usually used to reveal fraudsters and other wrongdoers – even though wrongdoing may not have occurred in these cases. 

The unwitting beneficiaries can now have their names, addresses, emails and telephone numbers revealed to Santander which can use them to press customers to repay the money or ultimately take legal action against them. Mr Justice Birss in the High Court Chancery Division has concluded that privacy rights are trumped by property rights. The orders are supposed to be issued only in exceptional cases but Birss has in effect created a rubber-stamping mechanism for issuing the orders whenever banks make errors and cannot trace the beneficiaries.

The case undermines the right to privacy by suggesting that in future there need not be real evidence of wrongdoing (eg fraud or internet piracy) or of a wrongdoer before such orders are issued. They can be issued on the assumption of wrongdoing without an arguable case being put in open court that wrongdoing has occurred.

Hundreds of such transfer errors occur each month and Santander has recently set up a Refunds and Recoveries team to deal with them. Typical errors include duplicate payments, the selection of an incorrect mandate and the insertion of an incorrect account number. In some cases the bank is stymied when trying to get money back from customers of other banks because the beneficiaries – whose names and details are unknown to Santander – are protected by the other banks’ confidentiality.

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Mass surveillance in the UK: Charles Farr’s flawed arguments

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Hang on! Just because UK government security official Charles Farr says GCHQ et al have done nothing unlawful in their mass digital surveillance, that’s no reason to believe him. You wouldn’t believe a burglar rifling through your drawers; why believe the spokesmen for the people rifling through your personal emails and internet searches?

Farr has put in a defence in the case brought by Privacy International against the Government, not a statement of the law, yet it is being treating as gospel truth. In particular people are demanding the law be changed – conceding that the surveillance is currently lawful (among them pro-security services types such as Lady Neville-Jones).

In fact a judge has not ruled in the case yet, and there are fundamental flaws in Farr’s argument that UK-originated digital material on overseas servers is fair game even though it originated in or returned to the “British Islands” (in the quaint formulation of the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act).

For starters it is strongly arguable in law that nothing in the Act can sanction unreasonable mass surveillance – since that was not the purpose of the Act. RIPA was intended to enact a European Directive banning such downloading and storing of personal material and a judge will interpret it in that light. He or she is likely to take a dim view of any alleged “loopholes” in it. (This argument is made briefly below and at length here.)

But Farr’s case is further flawed – not least by a disingenuous attempt to claim parliamentary sanction for mass surveillance on the basis of an arcane exchange in the House of Lords one July evening in the year 2000.

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Paul Weller’s children: another brick in the wall of privacy law

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The judgment in the privacy case of three of pop singer Paul Weller’s children (Weller v Associated Newspapers has caused a little confusion – not least among some of the press who might be expected to need to understand it best.

 

Mr Justice Dingemans has perhaps added another small brick in the developing English law of privacy – clarifying when pictures of stars can and cannot be published when they are going about their private lives. Here’s a brief rundown.

 

There is no tort of invasion of privacy in England. You can, in general, take pictures of whomever you want so long as you aren’t invading property rights to do so. Nor, broadly speaking, are their specific rights to those images belonging to the people who feature in them.

 

However, Dingemans notes: “After the enactment of the Human Rights Act 1998, claims for misuse of private information were absorbed into the established claim for breach confidence; see A v B plc [2002] EWCA Civ 337 at paragraph 4. In paragraph 53 of Douglas and others v Hello! Ltd and others (No.3) [2005] EWCA Civ 595 Lord Phillips said “we cannot pretend that we find it satisfactory to be required to shoehorn within the cause of action for breach of confidence claims for publication of unauthorised photographs of a private occasion”. (Para 20)

 

In other words a privacy law is being bit by bit put together by the courts from the old Common Law of confidence (ie misuse of confidential information) and the European Convention on Human Rights – balancing Article 8 (right to family life) with Article 10 (freedom of expression including right to publish photographs of people).

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Von Hannover and Axel Springer: How big a victory for press freedom?

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Two cases at the European Court of Human Rights have been hailed as a victory for the press in its struggle against encroaching privacy laws – but editors would be wise to hold the order for new long lenses. Nor should footballers’ girlfriends be licking their highly glossed lips in expectation of newspaper cash taps being turned on for their kiss and tell stories.

The cases, Von Hannover v Germany (No 2) and in particular Axel Springer AG v Germany should be seen in a peculiarly German context in which “human dignity” and hence privacy, has tended to receive greater protection than in other European countries – including Britain.

It is true that the court in both cases acknowledged that readers and viewers might have a legitimate interest in public figures – but not necessarily just because they are famous. There has to be a context, described as “events of contemporary society” – a public interest reason for publication.

In the Axel Springer case reports about a TV actor arrested and prosecuted for cocaine possession had been injucted by the German courts  – a situation that would be unheard of in Britain. The judgment acknowledged a public interest in legal and judicial matters where the German courts had sought to claim no one should have an interest in the actor beyond his TV role.

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Leveson inquiry and privacy law: kiss goodbye to kiss-and-tell

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One assumes that, when the Sun or News of the World reporters were gathering material on the peccadillos of X-Factor contestants, football stars and Formula One bosses, Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights was somewhat distant from their minds. This, after all, is the one that says: “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.”

So when Lord Justice Leveson during his inquiry into phone-hacking and related matters asked of former News of the World chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck: “Did anybody or did you give any thought to the Article 8 rights of the women?” meaning those in the Max Mosley affair, the answer was a little slow in coming but predictable: “There was no discussion about that.

Why would there be? After all, why let Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights get in the way of a good story?

But in fact Mr Thurlbeck showed the concept of privacy law was not wholly alien to him: “I would say the ‘kiss and tell’ story is now largely dead as a genre. In the last three years, we’ve taken great note of privacy matters.” There were now two questions asked of a story:  “That was the second question after ‘is it true’: ‘is it intruding into privacy?’”

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Neuberger super-injunction report opens new front against the media

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Lord Neuberger’s report on super-injunctions, perhaps inadvertently, has opened a new front in the judiciary’s war with the press over privacy law. As a by-product of his detailed researches for the report, his lordship has discovered that newspaper editors, for so long regarded as pillars of our community, should actually be mostly banged up in jail. Their crime? Publishing reports of Parliament.

Neuberger was a property lawyer and hence a bit of a black letter man by all accounts. So imagine his discomfiture when he could find nothing authoritative in written form giving the press full legal immunity to report whatever parliamentarians choose to say in Parliament – including material covered by super-injunctions.

This opens the possibility that in reporting John Hemming MP and Lord Stoneham on the Fred Goodwin affair and now the Ryan Giggs affair the press has laid itself open to contempt of court proceedings, meaning big fines or editors behind bars.

Neuberger is concerned about the sub judice rules and the arrangements for Parliamentarians to avoid breaching them (given injunctions are often anonymised). A parliamentary database of all such super-injunctions and anonymised injunctions is his answer so parliamentarians will know what they must not talk about.

But this is just skirting around the big issue – those such as Stoneham purposely breaching injunctions (and hence, on the face of it, sub judice rules) where they regard a matter of public interest is involved. Their statements are reported in the media on the basis that they are covered by parliamentary privilege, meaning neither the politician nor the media organization can be hauled in by a judge for contempt of court. It is this belief that Neuberger has now questioned.

The Master of the Rolls was accompanied at the launch of his report by his minder, Lord Judge, who said to the gathered members of the press: “You need to think, do you not, whether it is a very good idea for our law makers to be flouting a court order just because they disagree with a court order, or for that matter because they disagree with the law of privacy which Parliament has created.”

The Lord Chief Justice comes across as a bit of a bruiser. “I might send the boys round,” he is saying, “Things might get broken. People might get hurt – but no pressure.” He is acknowledging that parliamentarians can speak freely, but suggesting it might be wise if Parliament were sometimes to curb them – not because judges had told it to do so, you understand. Just because it might be better that way. He is reported by Neuberger as saying that “if Parliament took this course, it would not be because ‘a court has sought to order it, but because Parliament has chosen in the public interest not to insist on its privileges’ ”.

Background

Paradoxically the original principle of parliamentary privilege was that those outside should not hear of the proceedings in Parliament. Reporting was banned, the monarch was supposed to ignore anything that came to his ears, and the courts could not question anything that came up in debates. In the words of the Bill of Rights 1689: “the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament”. This gave no freedom to report those debates.

Neuberger says the Parliamentary Papers Act of 1840 extended qualified privilege to media summaries of Hansard, meaning immunity from civil or criminal prosecution for publication in good faith and without malice. So whether the Act covers the reptiles crawling around the Palace of Westminster simply trying to get a good story, possibly with malice in their hearts, is a moot point.

But Neuberger’s main contention is this: there is “no question that a super-injunction, or for that matter any court order, could extend to Parliament, or restrict, or prohibit parliamentary debate or proceedings”; however, “it is unclear whether it [reporting] would be protected at common law from contempt proceedings if it breached a court order” since there have been no cases on this. So Stoneham is in the clear – but those reporting his words may well be in contempt of court.

Neuberger says: “There is an argument that the common law should adopt the same position in respect of reports of parliamentary proceedings as it does in respect of reports of court proceedings.” Just as the press would not report the words of the judge or lawyers in the court, nor would they be able to report the words of the politicians talking about the same case in Parliament.

There is also an argument, though (here Neuberger refers to the 1999 Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege) that it would be absurd that the public could go to Hansard for those racy bits of contempt of court but could not read them in their Daily Mirror.

Neuberger’s consideration of the exposure of the Trafigura toxic dumping case treats that as part of the problem of the press freely reporting Parliament rather than a victory for the free press thanks to the intervention of Paul Farrelly MP in the Commons. Had Neuberger’s system been in place, Trafigura would be on the sub judice database and Farrelly would have been advised he could not table his question on the matter. Neuberger notes, too, that the Guardian’s legal advice was that it could not report Farrelly, and so it didn’t. The Guardian was banned from reporting Parliament on this issue – until all hell broke loose the day after thanks to Twitter and other social media. The Guardian gagging order was lifted.

If Neuberger and Lord Judge wish to add fuel to the already blazing row between the media and judiciary over injunctions and “judge-made privacy law”, what better way than trying to ban them from reporting Parliament in the manner they have done as a matter of custom and practice, apparently covered by privilege, or banning politicians (sorry: getting them to ban themselves) from raising matters of public interest in Parliament. The Sun, not normally an organ concerned with the intricate detail of constitutional matters, has made its views known already: “M’Ludicrous: Storm at free speech threat”. No doubt Kelvin MacKenzie is already sharpening his pencil to offer his considered view on the matter. See An issue of judicial underwear for the likely tenor of his contribution to the debate.

Note: A pdf of the Neuberger report on super-injunctions is here

Jemima Khan and Max Mosley in super-injunction tangle

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Warning: This post retails gutter press tittle tattle from the start. It then descends into a serious legal discussion of injunctive relief – which is not as sexy as it sounds. Sorry.

Jemima Khan has denied involvement in an act that would have brought her down in the eyes of all right-thinking individuals: seeking an injunction against the press. Max Mosley, meanwhile, has lost his attempt to force newspapers to warn people before they publish stories about their private lives. Such pre-notification might allow an errant husband to square things with his wife before the world of journalism appears at their front door. It is more likely, though, that Mr Mosley would have used this valuable time to awaken a judge from his slumbers and get him to issue a quickie super-injunction.

There used to be a simple legal principle: if something is true, you can say it (subject to various issues such as confidentiality). In the weird and wacky world of the super-injunction (or even the ordinary bog-standard injunction) if people say it, even if it’s true, “they should  expect a knock at the door in the next 48 hours and they should take their toothbrush to court, because they can expect to spend a very long time in Pentonville,” as media lawyer Mark Stephens at Finers Stephens Innocent put it. This even as a result of a little Twitter chitter-chatter.

It sounds pretty draconian. Oh, all right; Stephens is exaggerating a little, but breach of an injunction is a contempt of court. This allows a judge to punish the offender summarily on his own judgment (juries don’t come into it) and choose from a range of penalties including large fines or imprisonment for up to two years. So, actually, it is pretty draconian. Best to pack a few toothbrushes.

The judge can do all this even though there has been no full hearing of the case that lies behind the injunction. In other words the issues have not been tried and it may well be that, ultimately, the applicant has no case, even under the European Convention on Human Rights Article 8 (Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence).

Misdeeds

An interim injunction is intended to halt, say, a newspaper’s publication of a star’s sexual misdeeds. It is given pending a full hearing of the substantive case. The injunction may be issued without the newspaper’s lawyers even having an opportunity to put in a defence (ex parte in the old jargon, now known as an injunction without notice). The judge simply has to decide whether, if the newspaper published but then lost the (later) substantive case, the loss to the star would have been so great that it could not be remedied by damages. And the judge is always going to decide, yes, publication now cannot be undone later, so it is better, on balance, to ban publication now.

It is true that the judge must also have the Convention open at Article 10 (Everyone has the right to freedom of expression) and the Human Rights Act 1998 S. 12 when he makes the order and hence “be satisfied that the applicant is likely to establish that the publication should not be allowed” – in other words that there is a good case for a ban and that the case is likely to be sustained in the substantive trial of the issues.

Doubtless the learned judge will never have heard of half the stars who appear in front of him in these sad circumstances since he will be no avid reader of the yellow press (“Who, might I ask, is Mr X?” “He is a popular televisual entertainer, m’Lud”). But it is very likely that, without a full examination of the implications of Article 8, he will plump on the side of caution and give the injunction.

The problem, for freedom of the press, is that once the applicant has the interim injunction, he has no incentive to move to the substantive case. It would be costly, long drawn-out and, in particular, he might get the wrong result since, once the arguments have been put in full, the judge might decide there is no good reason to continue to ban publication.

Consequences

So the issue remains in limbo but with the threat of terrible consequences if someone lets the cat out of the bag. It is very difficult to challenge interim injunctions since the judge has a broad measure of discretion in issuing them. As long as his thought processes are as outlined above, he has acted wholly correctly.

Perhaps, as time passes and the star fails to bring his case to court, a challenge could be made. Perhaps the paper could claim the star had no intention of bringing a case; he just wanted the injunction. He would have breached rules of equity (since injunction is an equitable remedy) in making the claim. He who comes to equity must come with clean hands (ie with honest intentions) and not hands behind his back and fingers crossed as he addresses the judge.

But the fact is that these cases often remain in limbo, the case never heard, the chance to assert the legal right of freedom of the press never offered. This is the concern of the Liberal Democrat MP for Birmingham Yardley, John Hemming, who said in Parliament: “There is a tendency for people to issue injunctions on the basis of a claim that they intend to issue proceedings but not actually to issue those proceedings. One case such as that is AMM [a married television personality who wants to protect details of his private life] where no proceedings have been issued.” He noted too that the matter, while in this limbo, also remained apparently sub judice so the legal issues cannot be discussed even though there may be no intention by the plaintiff to bring the matter before a judge again.

The use of injunctions in this way clearly has implications for  freedom of the press, but there is another issue at stake. If we are to allow judges to make privacy law (David Cameron has said he doesn’t want to, but has offered no alternative) then they are making it in a scrappy, partial way. The important cases are not coming to court, the issues are not being raised, the principles not being enunciated. We just know we can’t say things that are true without knowing quite why.

A discussion on the Lord Neuberger superinjunction report and Hemming’s naming of a famous footballer is here

The Max Mosley case in the context of Leveson Inquiry and privacy law is discussed here

The Max Mosley European Court judgment is here

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