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 *  News Government says no need for privacy law

16/10/2003

The UK Government says current legislation is sufficient to protect the privacy of individuals and that a new privacy law "is not only unnecessary but also undesirable," according to its response yesterday to a Select Committee report on privacy and media intrusion.

Favouring self-regulation, the Government largely rejected a report by the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, led by Gerald Kaufman MP, on Privacy and Media Intrusion, published in June.

The initial report acknowledged the difficulty in balancing the need to preserve free speech against the need to protect individuals from unwarranted intrusion by the media into their privacy. It "firmly" recommended that the Government "bring forward legislative proposals to clarify the protection that individuals can expect from unwarranted intrusion by anyone not the press alone into their private lives."

But yesterday's response rejected that call:

"The Government strongly believes that a free press is vital to the health of our democracy. There should be no laws that specifically seek to restrict that freedom, and Government should not seek to intervene in any way in what a newspaper or magazine chooses to publish. We therefore support self-regulation."

The Government's response noted that the Data Protection Act and the Human Rights Act already provide some protection albeit at a press conference for the House of Commons Select Committee, Committee Chairman Gerald Kaufman MP had called the Data Protection Act "one of the most insane pieces of legislation ever to be passed by this House.

The Government's response continued:

"The weighing of competing rights in individual cases is the quintessential task of the courts, not of Government, or Parliament. Parliament should only intervene if there are signs that the courts are systematically striking the wrong balance; we believe there are no such signs."

One possible approach, the Government acknowledged, might be to introduce legislation that simply banned the invasion of privacy unless it is warranted by the public interest. "But it is exactly on this basis that the Code of Standards overseen by the [Press Complaints Commission] works," it observes.

The absence of a general law of privacy was acknowledged by a High Court judge in the action brought by Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones against Hello!, after the magazine published unauthorised photographs of their wedding.

Mr Justice Lindsay indicated in his ruling that the subject of privacy is better left to Parliament than the courts as Parliament "could consult interests far more widely." He added, however, that Parliament had "failed to grasp the nettle" and that "if Parliament does not step in then the courts will be obliged to".

The Government is indicating that it is agreeable to the courts taking the lead, according to Dr Chris Pounder of Masons, the firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, and Editor of Data Protection and Privacy Practice.

"The Government's response indicates that it is content to allow the courts to establish a privacy law based on the cases before it which will be, in the main, from individuals who can afford to loose an expensive court battle," said Dr Pounder. "Such an approach could skew the development of a privacy law in favour of the rich and famous."

Dr Pounder observed, "in its report, the Select Committee ignored the impact of the Data Protection Act as a legislative vehicle which could achieve the Committee's aims. It is now perhaps ruing that decision, as all that is needed to establish the necessary balanced protection could be a minor amendment to the current provisions in the Act, which arguably are tilted too much in favour of the press".

See: Text of the Government's response

See also:

Data Protection Act 'insane' give us privacy instead, OUT-LAW News, 16/06/2003

Zeta-Jones result: Will courts create a privacy law?, OUT-LAW News, OUT-LAW News, 14/04/2003


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