Northern Ireland

High Court: Information given to prison inmates on the potential monitoring of phone calls 'does not meet human rights standards'

Belfast High Court
Belfast High Court

Information provided to prisoners in Northern Ireland on the potential monitoring of their telephone calls does not meet human rights standards, a High Court judge ruled on Tuesday.

Mr Justice Scoffield said inmates are told nothing about the authorisation process for the random accessing of some jailhouse communications.

He granted an application for judicial review mounted by a former prisoner with mental health problems who claimed the Northern Ireland Prison Service had unlawfully failed to publish its policy on the interception of calls or letters.

A solicitor representing 32-year-old Curtis Tanner predicted that the decision will have “seismic implications” for prisoners in the region.

Under current arrangements, all new inmates are advised that all non-confidential calls to friends and family are recorded and may be accessed.

The Communications Compact Induction document explains that a maximum of 5 per cent of calls and letters are subject to monitoring on a daily basis.

Mr Tanner, who was held on remand at HMP Maghaberry for alleged driving offences, claimed this breached his right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Belfast man, who suffers from paranoia, said it made it difficult to talk freely on the phone to friends and family, or to write to his mother.

His lawyers argued that no proper explanation was provided for carrying out the process of monitoring said to be subject to strict controls and oversight.

The Prison Service responded by explaining that except for legal and privileged communications, all telephone calls to and from inmates are recorded but only accessed on a random sample basis where deemed necessary.

Those calls are deleted from the remote system location automatically after a set period of time, in compliance with data protection requirements.

Despite acknowledging safeguards are in place to ensure any intrusions are limited and must be appropriately authorised, Mr Justice Scoffield said few details are made available to either the public or those being detained.

“Prisoners are merely told in the compact that their calls ‘may be subject to specific monitoring’ for certain reasons (which are inexhaustive),” he stated.

“They are told nothing of the procedure relating to this.”

He held that the information provided on how the powers under the relevant Prison Rules will be exercised is inadequate to meet the requirements of the Convention. 

“There must be safeguards against arbitrary or overzealous monitoring of call content,” the judge said. 

Granting Mr Tanner’s application, he confirmed: “The requirement for any interference with his Article 8 rights to be ‘in accordance with law’ is not satisfied by the present level of information made available to the public and prisoners in some limited respects, namely in terms of the information provided to prisoners about the procedure for authorising real-time or subsequent accessing of the content of their calls.”

Solicitor Owen Beattie described the ruling as vindication for his client’s decision to mount a legal challenge.

“This judgment should act as a timely reminder that prison procedures must be compliant with human rights standards.”