Everyone has the right to respect for their private and family life, their home and their correspondence. This is a fundamental right laid down by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The exercise of this right, as stated in the Convention, should not be interfered with by a public authority except 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. These exceptions were the focus in the case of López Ribalda and Others v. Spain, which was decided by the European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”) on 17 October 2019. The case considered the balance which had to be struck between one’s fundamental right to privacy and the protection of the significant private interests of others.
The case came about as a result of the installation of CCTV cameras in a supermarket by an employer who wanted to identify the source of the shoplifting he knew was taking place. The employer informed his staff about the cameras, which were visible, but did not reveal that he had also installed hidden ones. The supermarket’s surveillance operation resulted in the dismissal of 14 employees for theft. Two of these employees brought proceedings against the employer on the basis that this secret monitoring violated their right to privacy. The Spanish Employment Tribunal dismissed their request that the CCTV footage be deemed inadmissible and ruled that the employer’s actions were proportional to the aim. The High Court of Justice of Catalonia agreed with this conclusion. The case was then brought before the ECtHR. The Grand Chamber of the ECtHR ruled that the use of covert CCTV cameras in this case was indeed proportionate and in accordance with the provisions of Article 8 of the Convention. The Court reasoned that proportionality had been maintained and that the intrusion was admissible for a number of reasons: firstly, because the surveillance was justified by the employer’s reasonable suspicions of serious misconduct; secondly, that it was appropriate to the aim pursued; thirdly, that it was necessary as there was no other means to gather the evidence in this instance and fourthly, that it was proportionate as the interference with the right was limited to a specific area and time.
This decision will inevitably have an impact on aspects of European labour law and will raise concerns with many about the growing permissibility of hidden monitoring in the workplace.
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