Two days running and we seem to be on a bit of a theme in this Blog about a person’s right to privacy and the limits of such a right.
If you picked up on yesterday’s Blog article (The limits of privacy), you’ll be aware that generally speaking the common law of Scotland (and indeed that of England) does recognise a person’s right to a private life. This right is also protected in terms of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (as implemented by the Scotland and Human Rights Acts 1998).
That said, privacy is not an absolute right and there may be all sorts of situations where the State (or your employer for that matter) might legitimately take in interest in your activities (whether these happen on the job or are of an extra-curricular nature).
If you’re William Beggs today, you might be feeling rather upset about this. William Beggs, for those of you who don’t know, is currently serving a life sentence for murder in a Scottish Prison. He earned the rather grim moniker, ‘The Limbs in the Loch’ killer because of he dismembered his victim (Barry Wallace).
Well, Mr Beggs – somewhat ironically many would no doubt be quick to pass comment – wished to pursue a legal action in which he alleged that his human rights had been breached by the prison authorities. Specifically, Beggs objected to the practice of the authorities in opening and reading his private correspondence from his doctors and lawyers. In his opinion, the authorities (the Scottish Prison Service and the were in breach of his right to privacy as guaranteed by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
There were three incidents between October and November 2018 where Beggs objected to the Scottish Prison Service monitoring his correspondence: two letters with the details of hospital appointments and one letter from his lawyer had been opened. The prison official who opened the letter from Beggs’ lawyer had done so mistakenly and the authorities apologised fully for this action.
Beggs submitted a petition for judicial review of the actions of the Scottish Prison Service (and also that of the Scottish Government as the supervising state authority) to the Court of Session in Edinburgh.
Beggs also brought a claim for damages of £5,000 that he was a victim in terms of Section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Section 100(3) of the Scotland Act 1998.
The outcome of Beggs’ petition
Unfortunately, for Beggs the Court of Session (where his application for judicial review was being heard) did not agree.
Yes, there is a general duty in terms of Article 8 for public authorities (the Scottish Prison Service and the Scottish Government to which it is answerable) to guarantee the right to privacy for serving prisoners, but it is not an absolute right.
As Article 8 makes abundantly clear:
“There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
Lord Armstrong (in the Outer House of the Court of Session) was very clear, when arriving at his decision to reject Beggs’ petition, that the Scottish Prison Service had very good reasons for monitoring his confidential correspondence. According to rules 55 and 56 of the Prison and Young Offenders Institutions (Scotland) Rules 2011, such actions could be justified in situations where there was:
“reasonable cause to believe that the contents of the correspondence might endanger the security of the prison, endanger the safety of any person, or relate to criminal activity”.
Although the Prison authorities had erred when they opened Beggs’ legal correspondence, they had recognised this situation and promptly apologised to him.
Consequently, Beggs’ claim for damages was also rejected.
A link to Lord Armstrong’s Opinion can be found below:
William Frederick Ian Beggs v The Scottish Ministers  CSOH 95
Copyright Seán J Crossan, 4 December 2019