ASBO reporting restrictions - ruling highlights misconceived and misconstrued system

A journalist has been refused information on ASBO recipients after the Information Tribunal ruled that Camden Council does not need to supply information about the recipients of ASBOs. As the Press Gazette reports today, Guardian journalist David Leigh had requested information about the ASBOs it had issued in 2006 from the council but been refused. The Information Commissioner subsequently overruled the council's decision last February but his ruling has now been overturned by the Tribunal. [RULING HERE]

In upholding the Council's decision to refuse the information, the Tribunal adjudicated that the Freedom of Information Act did not require the Council to release the information and cited the 1998 Data Protection Act as justification for protecting the identities of the individuals. Leigh has decided not to take his quest further - not least because the whole appeal process takes too long - but the case highlights the grossly unsatisfactory state of affairs when it comes to clarity in the rules and their application when it comes to reporting ASBOs.

Rules relating to the reporting of ASBOs (Anti Social Behaviour Orders) have caused confusion since the orders were first introduced. Much of this stems from the fact that they are civil orders issued by a council to deter antisocial behaviour and do not therefore have criminal effect or fall under the normal reporting restrictions and rules for criminal cases. In making an ASBO, it is discretionary for a council to name those who are subject to it. This seems at odds with the idea that the point of these orders is to stamp down on antisocial behaviour in communities and 'name & shame' those who engage in such behaviour. The Sun newspaper ran its own 'Shop a Yob' campaign along these lines. What this latest ruling seems to imply is that the ASBOs are there for the state - in the form of councils - to use but that when it comes to letting the press or public know who's subject to an order they can hide behind data protection law.

This is nonsense - Soham murderer Ian Huntley had remained under the radar of police in the time before his heinous crime partly because of such a flawed interpretation of what the Data Protection Act requires. If you are going to subject people to orders relating to how they behave in their community then that community and the media who report on it have a right to transparency and to know who is deemed antisocial. Just as people have a right to know if they have a paedophile living on their street or their estate, they have a right to know what other malfeasants inhabit their community. The Data Protection Act is there to protect sensitive, personal information - bank accounts, medical records and such like, however its being extended to cover any information, the release of which could be to the detriment of the subject. The argument surely is that if someone has engaged in antisocial behaviour then they should be subject to scrutiny.

Reporting restrictions become even more ridiculous when one is dealing with juveniles (those under 18). Even if they have previously been identified as subject to and ASBO, where a juvenile disobeys their ASBO and ends up in front of the magistrates courts on criminal charges, the court has the power (under the Children and Young Persons Act) to restrict the identification of the subject of the ASBO. So you end up with a situation whereby someone who continues with antisocial behaviour and goes on to commit an offence is then entitled to anonymity. The courts have in the past also ruled that magistrates should exercise caution when identifying juveniles and that they should not allow them to be identified as part of their punishment.

Its time there were some more sensible rules around the reporting of ASBOs to prevent such situations arising in the future. Its also time to revisit the Data Protection Act and its application to clarify its interpretation so that a better balance can be struck under human rights laws between freedom of information and the rights of individuals to keep sensitive information about themselves private.

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