I reported some time ago about a decision involving the retention of what are referred to as Prevention of Harassment Letters or Police Information Notices and a recent case has again shone the spotlight on how records of these are retained.
In R (on the application of T) v Metropolitan Police Commissioner  EWCA Civ 192, the applicant T had been served with a ‘Prevention of Harassment Letter’ by the police after an allegation made by a neighbour of a single incident of insulting behaviour.
The police had attempted to visit T the day after the alleged incident but had been unable to speak to her. They therefore decided to serve her with the letter but unsuccessfully attempted on a number of occasions to serve the letter personally.
The Crime Recording Information System (CRIS) recorded the fact that a decision had been taken to serve T with a warning letter and the steps taken to do so.
The police policy was to retain police information letters and CRIS reports relating to single allegations of conduct of a kind, which if repeated, could constitute harassment, for a period of 12 years.
T considered that she had been treated unfairly by being given no opportunity to respond to the allegation and applied for an order that the police destroy their copy of the letter and remove from CRIS all references to the letter and the decision to issue it.
Although she failed in the High Court, the Court of Appeal took a different view. The 3 judges, including the Master of the Rolls, considered that the letter to T and the CRIS report had contained information of a personal kind, so that the systematic processing and retention of that information would involve an unlawful interference with the right to respect for private life unless it could be justified.
The failure of the police to speak to T before serving her with the warning letter did not render the whole procedure disproportionate, but the retention of the letter or the CRIS report for more than a matter of months needed to be justified by evidence.
Here, the commissioner of police had concluded for the purposes of the appeal that, some 2½ years after the event, he was content for the record to be expunged on the grounds that there had been no ongoing concerns regarding risk and no reports of any further incidents.
The Court considered it was therefore clear that the continued retention of the information would have been unnecessary, disproportionate and unjustifiable.
There is an obvious tension between the need to protect an individual’s right to respect for private life and the need for the police to be able to maintain records which might serve to identify a pattern of behaviour and thereby prevent crime.
However, given that a course of conduct has to comprise at least 2 connected incidents it is difficult to see how a blanket policy of 12 years could be justified. Incidents occurring more than a year apart would be very unlikely to be capable of constituting a course of conduct so the commissioner was quite right to acknowledge that 2½ years was plenty long enough.
The unanswered question from the report is whether the police will be changing their policy. A single decision says nothing about past and future cases so anyone who has been served with a harassment warning letter would be well advised, first, to try to ensure that their comments are also recorded and, secondly, to seek clarification of how it will be recorded and for how long.