Friday 7 June 2013

Council admits snooping on councillor's e-mails

Carmarthenshire County Council finally got round to issuing a statement yesterday admitting that it had accessed the e-mail account of Cllr Sian Caiach (see Western Mail report here).

Given the existence of an internal form reporting details of an e-mail sent by the councillor, the council could hardly deny that snooping had taken place. Equally unsurprising, the council sees no need to apologise for what it did, and most of the statement is taken up with a reminder that it has the power to monitor the e-mail accounts of both staff and councillors without their knowledge or permission.

There are a couple of problems with the statement.

Firstly the authors talk about the council as though it was a person capable of doing all the things which real people can do, albeit a lofty and strictly impartial person. The reality is that it was real people in the shape of senior council officers who decided to target Cllr Caiach's e-mail account.

A sinister aspect of this is that the identity of the officer or officers requesting the information from IT remains unknown because they did not put their names on the form (the first part of the form is headed "Name of Client").

The second problem with the council's response is that it is misleading in one key respect. The reason for the snooping, the council says, was that:

In this case, the council had become the subject of legal action and needed to identify potential evidence in an impending court case and the email came to light as a result.

Cllr Caiach's e-mail account was accessed on 2 September 2011, and the council was at that stage not actually the subject of legal action. What had happened just a couple of days previously was that Jacqui Thompson's solicitors had written what is called a letter before action to the council.

The purpose of a letter before action is to advise that legal action may be taken, and the reason for sending such a letter is to initiate discussion in the hope that court action can be avoided.

So there was no legal action at that stage, and certainly no "impending court case". The relevant papers initiating legal proceedings were not served on the council until three months after the snooping took place. Moreover, the e-mail did not somehow accidentally come to light while council officers were looking for something else, but the action was targeted.

Cllr Caiach's stance in favour of allowing the public to film council meetings was not a secret. She had made her position very clear in public, and council officers can have been in no doubt that in the event of a legal action, there was a very strong possibility that Cllr Caiach would be a witness for Jacqui Thompson.

So why were senior council officers so interested in Cllr Caiach's e-mails? There appears to be no suggestion that she was suspected of any criminal wrong-doing, and the contents of the e-mail revealed nothing which was not already in the public domain. The suspicion has to be that someone was hoping to catch her out, and that does not justify snooping.

I'm not a lawyer, but it seems to me that covert monitoring of a potential witness should constitute contempt of court.


Anonymous said...

I am no Lawyer either but could such action be regarded as wilful obstruction of justice?

Anonymous said...

An interesting scenario would be whether a councillor could access the email accounts of senior officers via the IT department without the senior officers' a)permission and b)without ever telling them.

Tessa said...

Grubby and devious.