Local officials who subjected a Dorset family to covert surveillance to find out if they had lied to get their youngest child into an outstanding primary school acted illegally, a landmark ruling said today.
Poole Borough Council's spying on Jenny Paton, her partner Tim Joyce, and their three daughters was "not proportionate and could not reasonably have been believed to be proportionate", the Investigatory Powers Tribunal found.
The council had claimed it was necessary to follow and film the family for three weeks after receiving phone calls wrongly claiming the family did not live in the catchment area for Lilliput first school. The covert operation was authorised by officials under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), and ony disclosed to Paton by accident.
The Tribunal, which was the first of its kind to hold open hearings, found the operation was illegal under RIPA and breached the Human Rights Act.
Corinna Ferguson, legal officer for Liberty, said: "Intrusive surveillance is vital to fighting terrorism and serious crime but weak legal protections and petty abuses of power bring it into disrepute.
"Former Ministers claimed that the innocent had nothing to fear but the sinister treatment of Jenny and her kids proves that these powers need to be far more tightly restricted and supervised."
The government is currently conducting a review of RIPA with a view to requiring local authorities who want to carry out covert surveillance to obtain a warrant from a magistrate. Currently internal officials are able to give the go-ahead.
The Council accepted the ruling and apologised to the family. ®
Sponsored: Webcast: Ransomware has gone nuclear