High Court challenge avoided in battle for privacy rights

PUBLISHED: 11:57 22 April 2014 | UPDATED: 11:12 23 April 2014

Archant

An electoral registration officer has staved off a High Court legal challenge over a bid to protect the privacy of voters.

Stevenage Borough Council’s electoral registration officer, Nick Parry, was one of a group of 15 facing a legal challenge from the company behind the directory website 192.com

192.com objected to the practice of councils pre-ticking the annual electoral registration canvass form where electors had previously indicated they did not want their details included in the edited version of the register.

The edited version of the register is available for general sale.

Towards the end of 2012, 192.com threatened electoral registration officers with judicial review proceedings if they did not sign an undertaking promising not to pre-tick canvass forms – meaning people who had previously opted out would have to remember to tick the box again in order to continue to have their choice respected.

When 27 electoral registration officers refused to sign this undertaking, 192.com issued a judicial review claim in January last year.

Twelve of the electoral registration officers subsequently agreed to sign the undertaking, but the 15 who continued to refuse – including Mr Parry – mounted a common defence.

The case was due to be heard at the High Court last month, but 192.com discontinued its claim and legal costs were awarded to the 15 electoral registration officers.

Mr Parry said: “We take the privacy of our electors very seriously. If people have previously expressed a desire not to be included in the version of the register available for general sale it is our duty to reflect that.

“There was an important principle at stake here and, working together with other authorities, we have defended it.”

A spokesman for 192.com said: “They were pre-ticking the opt-out box in spite of the electoral watchdog, the Electoral Commission, advising that the practice was not lawful.

“Before the case could be heard, however, the Government made clear that a new system would definitely be introduced in 2014. This made any ruling from the court of academic interest only - because in the future a system of continuing opt-out will be introduced.”

Keith Marsden, the chief executive officer of 192.com, said: “We have no regrets about taking action against these 15 electoral registration officers. They are not above the law and we would not hesitate to take the same action again.”

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