In the Commons on Monday Robert Jenrick, minister for immigration, said, in the context of a debate on the implications of the violent disorder outside a hotel providing refuge for asylum seekers, in Knowsley on 10 February, and in answer to a question about why no “small boats bill” has been introduced into Parliament
this is one of the most litigious areas of public life. It is an area where, I am afraid, human rights lawyers abuse and exploit our laws at times, and where the courts have taken an expansive approach in the past. That is why we must get this right, but we will be bringing forward that legislation very soon
When pressed on his reference to abuse of the law by lawyers, and asked “how many solicitors, advocates and barristers have been reported by the Home Office in the last 12 months to the regulatory authorities”, Mr Jenrick replied
We are monitoring the activities, as it so happens, of a small number of legal practitioners, but it is not appropriate for me to discuss that here.
This is a remarkable statement, both in its lack of detail and in its potential effect. The prospect of the monitoring of lawyers by the state carries chilling implications. It may well be that Mr Jenrick had no intention of making what could be interpreted as an oppressive statement, but words are important, and words said in Parliament carry particular weight.
It may also be that the “monitoring” in question consists of legitimate investigation into potential criminality by that “small number” of lawyers, but if that was the case, why not say so?
But “monitoring”, in itself, must be done in accordance with the law. If it is in the context of a criminal investigation, or surveillance, there are specific laws which may apply.
And to the extent that it involves the processing of personal data of the lawyers in question (which, inevitably, it surely must, when one considers that “processing” means, among other things “collection, recording, organisation, structuring or storage” performed on personal data) the monitoring must comply with applicable data protection laws).
As a fundamental general principle, processing of personal data must be transparent (see Articles 5(1)(a), 13 and 14 UK GDPR, or, for law enforcement processing, section 44 of the Data Protection Act 2018 (DPA), or, for Intelligence Services Processing, section 93 of the DPA.
There are qualifications to and exemptions from this general principle, but, in the absence of circumstances providing such an exemption, a data subject (here, the lawyers who are apparently being monitored) should be made aware of the processing. The information they should receive includes, among other things: the identity and the contact details of the person directing the processing; the legal basis and the purposes of the processing, and; the recipients or categories of recipients of the personal data.
We tend to call the notices we receive under these provisions “privacy notices”. Those of us who have practised data protection law for a long time will remember the term “fair processing notice” which is arguably a better term. Whatever one calls them, though, such notices are a bedrock of the law – without being aware of the processing, and the risks, rules, safeguards and rights in relation to it, data subjects cannot properly exercise their rights.
With all that in mind, has the Home Office – or whoever it is who is directing the monitoring of the “small number of lawyers” – informed them that they are being monitored? If not, why not?
Returning to my earlier comments about the oppressiveness of comments to the effect that, or the giving of a perception that, the coercive powers of the state are being deployed against lawyers by monitoring them, one wonders if the Information Commissioner should take steps to investigate the background to Mr Jenrick’s comments.
The views in this post (and indeed most posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.