A recent judgment in the Family Court highlights the ongoing use of private investigators by local authorities to spy on parents involved in care proceedings, despite serious concerns that councils are using security firms to sidestep the current legal restrictions in place.

The latest case highlighting the practice was published this month, and involves a council which hired a private investigator to covertly film parents the council believed were lying about their relationship status.

The parents are now looking to file a civil claim for what they allege is a breach of their human rights after the Family judge ruled that the evidence was admissible, and that a separate complaint would need to be made within a different tier of the Family Court, or outside of the court itself.

Judge Moradifar observed that whilst the evidence may have been illegally obtained, it was possible for him to admit the video recording for the purpose of the family proceedings.

The parents went on to argue that the council’s use of the investigator was “misjudged and deeply unfortunate” and that the surveillance itself was not fair, reasonable or proportionate. They further alleged that the council had failed to comply with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) and had also breached their right to a private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Local Authorities and other public bodies hiring private investigators has risen sharply in the last decade, despite policy suggesting that investigators should only be used for the most serious crimes.

According to Big Brother Watch, more than £3.9 million was spent by public bodies hiring private investigators in 2011-2012.

In 2013, Former Communities secretary Eric Pickles commented on the use of private detectives, warning that, “Such powers can only be used for serious crimes, and require a magistrates’ warrant. It is totally unacceptable if councils are trying to sidestep these important new checks and they should be held to account for acting outside the law.”

A Freedom Of Information Request made in 2012 about Devon County Council’s use of private investigators revealed that the council had spent a substantial amount on covert surveillance of families in care proceedings. The breakdown was outlined as follows:

2008/09
£12,947.79

2009/10
£12,534.37

2010/11
£15,688.44

2011/12
£20,857.70

2012/13
£13,275.01 

This area is in urgent need of reform, and guidelines in the interim should be issued for local authorities on how and when they can use private detectives.

What do you think? Should public bodies be allowed to spy on parents in family court proceedings?

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