The boundary between a person’s private life and their public activities is not easy to mark, and its position has shifted with development of human rights jurisprudence. Thus, a person attempting to commit suicide in public, captured on CCTV, was held to have had his rights under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights breached when the footage was subsequently broadcast (Peck v UK  ECHR 44).
Similarly, the question as to the extent to which an employer must respect an employee’s privacy rights in the workplace, or the working environment, is no longer simply answered by reference to the terms of the employment contract. In addition to the employee’s Article 8 rights, the employer must have regard to the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) for which there is guidance, in the form of the Employment Practices Code, published by the Information Commissioner’s Office under section 51(2) of the DPA (“the ICO Code”).
All of these issues are addressed in an interesting recent judgment handed down in the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT). The case – Swansea Council v Gayle – was an appeal from an earlier Employment Tribunal (ET) decision, which had found that Mr Gayle had been unfairly dismissed (although it also found that he had not been wrongfully dismissed, nor racially discriminated against). He had twice been observed at a leisure centre during working hours and was subsequently covertly filmed several times by an investigator while leaving, or being in the process of leaving, the same leisure centre at times when he was claiming to be working.
The ET determined that, even before the covert filming had begun, the employer had had sufficient evidence to support its suspicions that its employee had been untruthful about his activities during working hours:
There was no longer a legitimate reason (or for Article 8 purposes, a legitimate aim) to place him under covert surveillance. Even if there was a legitimate aim the Council’s manner of doing so was disproportionate and unjustified
the process by which the Council dismissed Mr Gayle involved an unjustified interference with his Article 8 right to a private life…the circumstances of his dismissal fell within the ambit of Article 8; the state had a positive obligation to safeguard his Article 8 right (as, indeed, did the Council as a public body); in all the circumstances, the Council’s interference with that right was unnecessary and disproportionate; the fact that the Council had a permissible reason to dismiss Mr Gayle is not by itself sufficient since it could have fairly dismissed him without such interference
As the EAT said, this amounted to the rather odd proposition that
the dismissal was unfair because the investigation was too thorough
Therefore they accepted the three-part submission that there could be no breach of Article 8(1) (“Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence”) because
First, the photography was in a public place of somebody in a public place…Next…this was at a time when the Claimant was “on the clock”; it was in his employer’s time…An employee can have no reasonable expectation that he can keep those matters private and secret from his employer at such a time…Thirdly…the Claimant here was a fraudster; he was busily engaged on his own business whilst receiving his employer’s money for his employer’s business…a person in such circumstances can have no reasonable expectation that their conduct is entitled to privacy
Because no breach of Article 8(1) had occured, there was no need for the EAT to consider arguments for justification under Article 8(2). However, had they had to, they would have held that interference was justified in pursuance of two legitimate aims. Firstly the prevention of crime, and secondly
the protection of the rights and freedoms of others, the “others” here being the employers whose money was at stake and who had contractual rights in agreement with the Claimant that he would behave in a way in which as it happened he did not
The EAT was particularly critical of the ET’s reliance on an apparent breach by the Council of the ICO Employment Practices Code. The ET had found that the Council’s apparent ignorance of the Code, in conducting the covert filming as it did, constituted a breach of the DPA which rendered the dismissal unfair. The EAT attacked the logic of this approach
[the ET says] that that ignorance would be such that the result would be that its investigation could no longer be considered reasonable; it does not say why. It is not obvious to see why ignorance of a code which the employer was not bound in law to have regard to in any event would render an investigation into the wrongdoing of the Claimant unreasonable when it would otherwise have been reasonable
The EAT notably did not say that the Council’s actions were or were not permissible under DPA, or the Code, but rather that the ET
in criticising the employer for covertly filming the Claimant was not dealing with any matter relevant to the fairness of the dismissal
This case does not break any new ground, but the EAT did observe that no authority had been drawn to their attention which suggested that covert filming in a public place of claimants in personal injury cases had been held to be in breach of Article 8 (provided there were no alleged breach of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000). And this case suggests that an Article 8 complaint about covert recording in a public place within an employment context is similarly unlikely to have much chance of success, despite what might be (in the EAT’s description of the ET’s feelings) “the Tribunal’s distaste for the employer’s use of covert surveillance”.