UK law of privacy found wanting by European Court: Peck v UK

The European Court of Human Rights upheld on 28 January a complaint by an individual who was photographed by the CCTV system of his local Council, and of whom footage was then made available to the media.

The applicant suffered from depression, and was filmed by the CCTV system in a street with a kitchen knife in his hand with which he attempted suicide by cutting his wrists. Although the suicide attempt itself was not captured on film, the applicant’s lone and distressed predicament was. The Council released the footage to the broadcast and print media with the result that it appeared on TV and in the local press.

The applicant’s complaint over this infringement of his privacy was upheld both by the Broadcasting Standards Commission and the Independent Television Commission, although neither had the power to award damages by way of compensation. In a telling departure from the findings of the two broadcast media regulators, the Press Complaints Commission rejected the applicant’s complaints because the events in question occurred in a public place.

The applicant also applied to the High Court for a judicial review of the decision of the local Council to release the footage. His application was rejected, as was his subsequent appeal. The ECHR reviewed the facts and relevant UK law and concluded that the law failed to provide the applicant with an appropriate remedy, awarding him EUR 11,800 in damages plus his legal costs. In so doing it concluded that ‘the disclosure by the Council of the relevant footage constituted a serious interference with the applicant’s rights to respect for his private life’ (as provided for in Article 8 of the European Convention).

At a time when the media is pressing for a greater degree of self-regulation, the ECHR rejected the Government’s submission that the three media commissions provided the applicant with an opportunity to assert and vindicate his rights, finding that ‘the lack of legal power of the commissions to award damages to the applicant means that those bodies could not provide an effective remedy to him.’ The court considered that the applicant must have suffered ‘significant distress, embarrassment and frustration which is not sufficiently compensated by a finding of violation.’

The ECHR has concluded then that the three principal media commissions do not adequately protect the privacy of the individual in circumstances such as these. The media as a whole has therefore two causes for concern. The most immediate one is that the inadequacy of the protection afforded to privacy by the UK law is one which can be remedied by the ECHR where necessary. The second is that the inability of the commissions to award compensation in these circumstances may compel those with a grievance to the more effective remedy afforded by the ECHR.

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