High Court Considers Data Protection and Privacy Rights of Police Informants


To what extent are members of the public who make reports to the police entitled to insist on their anonymity being preserved? The High Court addressed that question in a guideline case which raised novel issues concerning data protection, misuse of private information and human rights.

A woman contacted the police to pass on information about her ex-husband, who she believed was dealing drugs. She was anxious that he posed a risk to her and her children and made it very clear that she did not want to be identified as the source of the information. She met with an officer, whose report made plain that she was frightened of repercussions from speaking to the police.

The report, in which she was identified, was nevertheless passed on by the police to a local authority’s social services department. A council employee who happened to be in a relationship with the woman’s ex-husband unlawfully accessed and downloaded a copy of the report and passed it to him.

The woman’s claim against the council was rejected by a judge on the basis that it did not bear indirect, or vicarious, liability for the employee’s criminal acts. However, she pursued a further claim against the relevant police force alleging breaches of the General Data Protection Regulation, misuse of private information and breach of her human right to respect for her private life.

It was agreed that the force was duty-bound to disclose to the council the information that she had provided. However, in upholding all three claims, the Court found that the force had failed to establish that it was necessary to identify her as the source of that information. Her data was in any event not processed transparently in that she was not informed of the report’s disclosure to the council.

The report could have been anonymised, but no consideration was given to taking that course. The information was of a private character and she had a reasonable expectation that it would be treated in confidence. It had not been established that the interference with her right to respect for her private life was necessary in a democratic society.

In ordering the force to pay her £3,000 in compensation, the Court acknowledged that the immediate cause of her distress was the employee’s criminal disclosure. However, given her intense concern that her identity as the source of the information should not be shared any more widely than necessary, it would not be fair for the force to escape liability altogether.

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