A law to make an innocent person apologise for something they are not guilty of

Online abuse (and now, more frequently, mobile phone based abuse) is a terrible thing. It ranges from the poison pen on steroids to far more serious, malicious, pernicious behaviour. Public figures are subject to wholesale abuse, ridicule, discrimination, misogyny and threats on social media. Private individuals are subjected to emotional abuse and severe pressures. Something should be done.

Well, a number of people have proposed something that could be done. Two members of the Labour parliamentary party have proposed separate private members bills (draft laws introduced for debate by individual parliamentarians and not by the Government itself). Pat Rabbitte’s bill targets offensive and menacing messages. Lorraine Higgins’ bill would target a wider range of abuse, including incitement to commit suicide and “revenge porn“.

Senator Higgins has, in particular, been subjected to persistent abuse which no-one should have to endure. Some of it is likely criminal within the current legal framework but requires prosecution. Some of the abuse would also violate the terms of service of the social media providers involved. A lot of it is indecent, unpleasant and unacceptable, but it would be quite a jump to criminalise it. Senator Higgins has tonight said in the Seanad that her proposed law is intended to restore online decency. Unfortunately one has to wonder if such a thing ever existed, but there is a much bigger debate to be had about whether unpleasant commentary should be criminalised.

The core provisions of Senator Higgins’ bill are a mixed bag. As Fergal Crehan points out it is quite specific in its aims and includes some good ideas.

To her credit, Senator Higgins’ bill is far more focused than anything I’ve seen proposed before, dealing in a specific way with areas which are not already covered by existing law. Though there are elements of it which I consider absolutely unacceptable, in other areas it raises issues that do need to be addressed by the legislature.

There is little doubt, though, that such a law would represent a serious chilling risk and in particular section 4 (harmful electronic communications) would appear to be a potent weapon in the hands of a public or wealthy figure who wishes to shut down certain types of comment.

It is remarkable, however, that section 5 has made it into the Bill at all. It creates another criminal offence, of not complying with a court direction. That is not controversial. What is quite amazing, however, is the type of court direction concerned. Section 5 says:

If on the evidence the court is not satisfied that the person should be convicted of an offence under section 3 or 4, the court may nevertheless make any of the following upon application to it in that behalf if, having regard to the evidence, the court is satisfied that it is in the interest of justice so to order:

(a)  that the person remove or delete specific electronic communication(s);

(b)  that the person shares an apology or correction as the court deems appropriate in the circumstances;

(c)  that the person shall not, for such period as the court may specify, communicate by any means with the other person or that the person shall not approach within such distance as the court shall specify of the place of residence or employment of the other person.

In other words: a person who is accused of an offence and is found not guilty could nevertheless find themselves being ordered to publicly apologise for the thing that they were found not guilty of and to take other steps.

Courts order people to do things all the time: after they are found guilty of a crime or where an injunction is sought. The above provision is effectively a form of injunction. It would be applied in the District Court, which doesn’t have the jurisdiction to grant civil injunctions. It would be applied by a court that has found the person in front of them not guilty.

Section 5 would make a lot of sense if it applied following conviction. Given the structural nature of the internet there is usually little point in ordering the internet service provider or social media operator to do anything, as the order will usually be unenforceable, so it is quite a good idea to order the person responsible to delete the post rather than the service provider (although there would be issues with archives and caches).

The recently-passed online abuse law in New Zealand provides for similar orders to Senator Higgins’ section 5, including orders to an ISP, and it will be instructive to see how that operates. There are, however, two glaring problems with section 5:

  • the current wording empowers the court to make orders where the accused is found not guilty of a relevant offence but says nothing about the orders that can be made where an accused is found guilty; and
  • a law which orders an innocent person to apologise for something or to do anything related to the crime of which they were accused would not survive a challenge.

While one senator who backs the bill insists that it is supported by the Government and has been approved by the Attorney General, the relevant line minister does appear to recognise the problem with section 5.

This bill is unlikely to be passed but will have an impact on the debate any future proposals. Section 5 needs to be seriously reformulated if it is to be considered further.

New site for the day job

IMG_3405You might be interested in visiting the new site of the firm I work in – PG McMahon Solicitors. The site includes a blog (under the Updates heading) which will have more of a legal updates focus than the comment one of this blog. Check it out, and consider liking our Facebook page and following our Twitter account to keep up to date with posts.

Be kind, rewind: the dangers of covert CCTV

Copyright nolifebeforecoffee (Flickr) https://www.flickr.com/photos/nolifebeforecoffee/with/124659356/Cameras are everywhere these days, but CCTV systems have been popular since well before the advent of camera phones. For the most part CCTV cameras are positioned in fixed, known locations such as public offices, shops or streets. A variety of covert cameras are available which have been used for many years to detect theft and fraud in particular. Any such use of covert recording should only be undertaken with caution, in specific circumstances and on the basis of advice.

Capture

This week’s Limerick Leader carries a story of covert recording in the offices of a school. It appears from the report that the reason for covert recording was that sensitive files had gone missing from the school. The full circumstances of the case are not yet known. The use of covert CCTV systems raises one set of issues, the missing files another. Missing files indicates a security breach and while a loss of personal data (likely sensitive personal data) is not specifically governed in the Data Protection Acts 1988 and 2003 a duty of care arises and the Data Protection Commissioner has published a code of practice on dealing with such breaches.

In general terms, the main considerations in using CCTV systems are the individual’s constitutional right to privacy, the Data Protection Acts and employment law. The right to privacy is somewhat undefined as no specific privacy law has been enacted (a previous bill was abandoned). Data protection legislation does not specifically refer to recording equipment or CCTV but since cameras record images of individuals, the images themselves are personal data within the meaning of the Acts and the general rules therefore apply to them. It is crucial that the collection of personal data by recording images is justified. Security would be an obvious justification but the Data Protection Commissioner is very clear that security does not justify indiscriminate recording of employees, for example.

[U]sing a CCTV system to constantly monitor employees is highly intrusive and would need to be justified by reference to special circumstances. If the monitoring is for health and safety reasons, a data controller would need to demonstrate that the installation of CCTV was proportionate in addressing health and safety issues that had arisen prior to the installation of the system.

Cameras should not ordinarily be put in locations where occupants and visitors would have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Particular sensitivity might be required in a school, for example, which is obviously frequented by minors. In addition, the Acts require that people are provided with information about the data collected about them and who has collected it. In the context of CCTV, therefore, notices should be displayed indicating that recording is taking place, who is responsible for the recording and why it is being carried out.

Use for monitoring staff performance or conduct is not an obvious purpose and staff must be informed before any data are recorded for this purpose.

Of course, there are situations in which these rules will neither work nor be appropriate and the Acts do allow for this. Indeed, the collective EU grouping of data protection regulators accepts that employers may have to resort to covert recording in order to address fraudulent or criminal behaviour and that national laws may permit this. Employment law has long recognised that covert recording might sometimes be justified. But it is clear that specific consideration must be given on a case-by-case basis to the use of covert CCTV recording. Case studies of the Commissioner demonstrate the factors which must be borne in mind.

For data protection purposes, covert recording can be justified generally only with the involvement of the Gardaí. Covert recording may be justified in the case of criminal offences, but not for performance-related monitoring.

The use of recording mechanisms to obtain data without an individual’s knowledge is generally unlawful. Covert surveillance is normally only permitted on a case by case basis where the data are kept for the purposes of preventing, detecting or investigating offences, or apprehending or prosecuting offenders. This provision automatically implies that a written specific policy be put in place detailing the purpose, justification, procedure, measures and safeguards that will be implemented with the final objective being, an actual involvement of An Garda Síochána or other prosecution authorities for potential criminal investigation or civil legal proceedings being issued, arising as a consequence of an alleged committal of a criminal offence(s).

Where CCTV footage is recorded, whether covertly or not, obligations continue to govern its retention and access to it. It is common for operators of CCTV systems to refuse to provide copies of their recordings to anyone other than Gardaí. It should be noted that, because camera footage is the personal data of the people recorded on it, those people have a right of access to it under the Acts. Again the Commissioner is quite clear:

Where a data controller chooses to use technology to process personal data, such as a CCTV system to capture and record images of living individuals, they are obliged to shoulder the data protection obligations which the law places on them for such data processing. In the matter of access requests for CCTV footage, data controllers are obliged to comply fully with such requests. Claims by a data controller that they are unable to produce copies of footage or that stills cannot be produced from the footage are unacceptable excuses in the context of dealing with an access request. In short, where a data controller uses a CCTV system to process personal data, its takes on and is obliged to comply with all associated data protection obligations.

“Conscience” and the marriage referendum

Each time an Irish government proposes to introduce new rights for gay citizens opponents call for the right of service providers to discriminate against those citizens. They call this a “conscience clause”, which is surely a misnomer but sounds better than a “permissible discrimination” exemption.

Strangely, this is an argument which it appears must be had repeatedly. I wrote about it at the time of the Civil Partnership Bill and that post applies equally to the marriage referendum. In short: the Equal Status Act prohibits discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation. It was introduced fifteen years ago and it does not include a “conscience clause” (there is a limited “ethos” exemption for schools run by religious organisations). A “conscience clause” was not permitted in the Equal Status Act or the Civil Partnership Act. Why should marriage be any different?

The religious beliefs of citizens also benefit from protections and the State should not offend against those rights. But the State is entitled to insist that businesses providing services to the public respect its equality laws. The difficulty with providing an exemption from equality legislation on the basis of religious beliefs is that it would allow the law of the State, applicable to all, to be subverted by the private beliefs and opinions of self-defining groups. Indeed, if a “conscience clause” were introduced, there is no reason why it shouldn’t protect political beliefs as well as religious beliefs.

Today William Binchy is concerned that gay couples might sue a church for refusing to perform a same sex religious marriage ceremony. This is a strange concern to have. I have yet to hear of divorced people suing churches for refusing to perform a marriage, for example, but the same principles apply. Even if Mr Binchy’s fear was realised, it would mean that civil marriages would have to be registered separately from religious ceremonies. This would not require churches to perform same sex marriages.

It is striking that calls for a “conscience clause” only seem to arise in the case of gay rights. One does not hear the Iona Institute and other groups opposing the marriage referendum advocating on behalf of bakers and stationers forced to provide services to single mothers, divorcees or atheists. If one were to introduce a “conscience clause” it would have to apply to all categories of persons who benefit from protection under the Equal Status Acts and would open the gates to a wide and unpredictable range of subjectively permissible discrimination that would entirely undermine the purpose of equality legislation. Any conscience clause limited to gay rights would, in itself, constitute discrimination.

Perils of learner permits: make sure you observe the conditions

RSATraditionally people have referred to green driving licences as “provisional licences” but in 2006 they were rebranded as “learner permits”. The change in name is, no doubt, intended to suggest a key difference between a driving licence and a learner permit: the latter “has effect in accordance with its terms and conditions“. This simple statement is important and has continually raised a question: if the terms and conditions of a learner permit are not observed, is the driver unlicensed?

There are a number of specific offences which a learner driver can commit, such as not displaying L plates or driving unaccompanied. These offences are frequently committed and drivers are often prosecuted for them. However, there is also an offence which anyone can commit of driving without a driving licence. Just as people have traditionally referred to the “provisional licence”, it has traditionally been thought that if one holds a learner permit one is licensed, whether or not one observes the terms and conditions applicable to it.

Gardaí and solicitors have argued this point repeatedly but it has recently been clarified in the High Court: if you hold a learner permit and drive in breach of its terms and conditions it is temporarily ineffective and you are guilty of driving without a driving licence.

The penalties for driving without a licence are not overly severe, in that you do not face automatic disqualification from driving for example, but a follow-on issue arises: if your policy of insurance requires that you are a licensed driver, and you drive in breach of the terms and conditions attaching to a learner permit, are you still insured? A conviction for driving without insurance is more serious than one for driving without a licence and carries a disqualification.

This was the second element to the case and, fortunately for learner drivers, the outcome was that the fact that a learner permit might be temporarily ineffective does not necessarily invalidate the insurance policy. The wording of the policy, as ever, is crucial. In this case, the policy certificate provided that the defendant’s driving was covered “provided that [he] holds a licence to drive such a vehicle or, having held such a licence, is not disqualified from holding such a licence.” The terms and conditions apply to the learner permit, not the driver, and so he held a licence entitling him to drive the vehicle. The insurance “was not made conditional in its terms on the accused complying with the terms of a learner permit licence.”

This settles a question which has been arising quite frequently in District Courts over the past few years. It is also a reminder that drivers should familiarise themselves both with the terms and conditions of a learner permit and an insurance certificate before driving.

The record holds

Another victory for Kerry yesterday. A few were in touch to say that Dad’s record was nearly broken. Paul Geaney came close, but not close enough. Ciarraí abú.

 2014: Paul Geaney scores 50 seconds after throw in

 

1962: Garry McMahon scores 34 seconds after throw in

 

Penalties for text driving

The new law on “text driving” that came into effect in May is unfortunately confusing. It’s a law that is probably intended to set a tone rather than result in significant prosecutions, but road traffic offences do tend to generate a lot of challenges.

I wrote to the Minister for Transport about the regulations and the new one (Paschal Donohue TD) wrote back.

You are quite right about penalties under the regulations. The Road Traffic Acts 1961-2014 contains in section 102 of the 1961 Act, as amended, a ‘general penalty’, which applies to all road traffic offences for which a specific penalty is not set out in the legislation. We had erroneously referred to the general penalty initially, in reference to the texting regulations. However, as you correctly pointed out, section 3(8) of the 2006 Act provides a penalty of a fine on summary conviction not exceeding €2,000. The Department has since clarified this to the media.

Initial media reports, relying on a note from the Department of Transport, said that the penalties included a jail term of up to 12 months. The clarification is welcome, but he did not address the drafting error in the regulations, which I mentioned in April:

The 2014 Regulations do not apply to “a person to whom section 3(1)” of the 2006 Act applies. Section 3(1) provides for the offence of driving while holding a mobile phone. Section 3(2) exempts Gardaí and emergency services personnel on duty from the prohibition, so I assume the 2014 Regulations are in error and intended to refer to section 3(2).


Photostream

Hello. #westlimerick #glenastar

West Limerick hills on a Summer evening. #nofilter

If ever passing through Newcastle West, stop for a stroll around the Castle grounds. Lovely on a day like today.

Access denied

A snap for Editor_Tupp @tupp_ed

Shower

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