On 15 May, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) allowed an application by an English citizen, Geoff Peck, to proceed. This will result in the ECHR reviewing a case in which Peck claims that his privacy has been invaded by an English local authority.
The decision is significant. Not only will the ECHR now consider whether a UK citizen has a right to privacy, but also the rights of governments and local authorities to monitor their citizens – primarily by use of CCTV – and the rights of the media to use resultant footage will be considered. The case raises fundamental arguments as to the competing interests of protecting the public as a whole from criminal activity, against an individual’s rights to privacy.
In 1995, Peck took a kitchen knife to the town centre of Brentwood, late at night, and tried to commit suicide. He was unfortunate enough to be filmed by the local council’s CCTV system. Subsequently, the local authority provided footage of the incident, as an example of the benefits of installing CCTV systems for the purpose of preventing potentially criminal activities, to various newspapers and broadcasters. The council required that the media should "mask" Peck so that he could not be identified in any use by them of the footage, although this was found to be inadequate.
The Broadcasting Standards Commission and the Independent Television Commission separately held that since Peck was recognisable, the broadcast of this material amounted to infringement of his privacy. The Press Complaints Commission, however, rejected a complaint by Peck, on the basis that the events took place in a town high street, open to public view and this was not a breach of the PCC Code.
Peck then applied to the English High Court to judicially review the local authority’s disclosure of the CCTV material. The High Court found that the council was empowered by criminal law to use CCTV to prevent crime and rejected his application. As a result, Peck has now applied to the ECHR to overrule the decision. The UK Government, which opposes his application, says that the incident which was filmed did not form part of his private life. Peck contends that there is no adequate domestic remedy.
Last month’s decision to hear Peck’s case will, undoubtedly, have very wide-ranging implications. The possible development of a new right to privacy is one of the most important issues facing the media. Codes of practice containing clauses specifically designed to provide protection from unwarranted intrusions into the private life of individuals have existed here for several years. The question now is whether the courts here will develop a distinct legal remedy. Peck’s case – and the on-going legal battle between OK! and Zeta-Jones/Douglas against Hello! – will help to determine the circumstances in which private individuals, and celebrities, can expect protection.
Christopher Hutchings is a partner in the Media Group of Charles Russell solicitors and represents Hello! magazine