R (on the application of J) v the Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall  EWHC 2996, 26 October 2012 – read judgment
Close on the heels of last week’s decision regarding disclosure of information from the Child Sex Offenders Register comes this ruling on the police decision to disclose certain information from a nurse’s enhanced criminal records certificates without affording her an opportunity to make representations before the information was released.
The Legal Framework
Section 113B of the Police Act 1997 provides for enhanced criminal record checks to be carried out in various specified circumstances, such as where people are applying to work with children or vulnerable adults. The check is enhanced in the sense that it will involve a check with local police records as well as the centralised computer records held by the Criminal Records Bureau. As well as information about minor convictions and cautions, it will reveal allegations held on local police records about the applicant’s criminal or other behaviour which have not been tested at trial or led to a conviction.If the information satisfies certain threshold tests in the relevant statute, it must be given to the Secretary of State who must include it in the relevant individual’s Enhanced Criminal Record Certificate or “ECRC.”
The 1997 Act has the unexceptionable aim of protecting vulnerable people (for present purposes, vulnerable adults), from being harmed by those working with them. It does so by requiring relevant information available to the police, about an applicant for a post involving responsibility for such vulnerable people, to be vouchsafed in an ECRC to the prospective employer. It is then for that employer to decide whether the information is relevant, and, if so, whether it justifies refusing to employ the applicant. In the real world of course such information can have a devastating effect on an individual’s future in the employment market.
The claimant is a registered nurse from Zimbabwe who has been working in the UK since 2004. Earlier ECRCs contained details of a caution administered to the claimant in 2005 for “child cruelty” contrary to section 1 of the Children Act 1933, although the caution related to nothing more serious than leaving her son alone for longer than was acceptable. More serious allegations were made in 2007 and in 2011 of assault against elderly residents in the care homes where she worked. This information was added to the claimant’s ECRCs without her knowledge. In neither case was any further action taken. The Royal College of Nursing contended on the claimant’s behalf that it was not proportionate for the police to disclose this information to all future potential employers. But in 2012 the claimant received a letter from the Criminal Records Bureau informing her that the police had decided not to amend her ECRCs, and it was over this letter that the battle lines were drawn in this application for judicial review. There was not so much a question of law to be applied, but of proportionality.
The claimant argued that disclosure was a disproportionate interference with her rights under Article 8 of the Convention. The failure to afford her an opportunity to make representations before the information was included on the certificates was also a significant error; there should be very few cases in which such an opportunity would not be given. The defendants maintained that if the claimant has a propensity for inappropriate and physically rough treatment of the very elderly this could put them at risk when in contact with her as nurse, and therefore the inclusion of the 2007 and 2011 incidents was justified. The Chief Constable considered that the information might be relevant to other registered institutions considering her application. Whilst he was “unfamiliar” with the residential care home environment and “not an expert” on residential care standards or the supervision and development of care workers, he concluded that
the respective registered bodies, were those which were best placed to make an assessment about whether the claimant posed a threat to the vulnerable and as such the information might be of relevance to them.
He had taken into account the fact that none of the police held information indicated there to be a threat to life or serious physical harm. But once it appeared that there had been a second incident, he took the view that
there might be a propensity for poor handling and care of vulnerable residents and my concern was that the alleged harm the Claimant inflicted on such residents resulting in two independent allegations may not be the result of an inadequate technique but rather uncaring attitude and behaviour.
Foskett J granted a declaration that the disclosure given breached the claimant’s Article 8 rights and that the further decisions taken up to and including the decision to persist with disclosure, reflected in the Chief Constable’s 2012 letter, should be quashed.
The Court’s reasoning
The defendant should have given the claimant an opportunity to make representations before disclosure was given. The CRB Disclosure Officer who prepared the initial report on the claimant had said that, but for the 2011 matters, she would not have recommended disclosing the 2007 matters. Whilst the CRB Disclosure Officer took the view that the emergence of the 2011 allegations permitted the re-emergence of the 2007 material as a potential candidate for disclosure, there must be strong evidence to review such a positive decision about non-disclosure of certain material which has been in place for over 4 years.
..it is, in my view, important that decision-makers are reminded in any guidance that they do need to be very confident that, when something in the past is thought later to be made relevant and disclosable by virtue of some new evidence that has emerged, the decision to disclose truly is clear cut before proceeding without affording the opportunity for representations to be made.
… it does not require much imagination to believe that being accused of rough handling is a daily occupational hazard for a nurse dealing with very elderly patients, particularly those who have certain physical frailties and diminishing mental faculties. If a nurse (perhaps as is the case with the claimant) has an apparently rather severe demeanour, it is not difficult to see how even a relatively minor mishandling incident could be perceived by such a patient to have been a piece of deliberate castigation or retaliation for the difficulties the patient was presenting. 
Foskett J did not accept the defendants’ contention that these two sets of allegations together gained a weight that tilted the balance in favour of disclosure. Whilst he could understand the concerns that were felt by the officers, those concerns could only arise on the basis of a suspicion of” occasional heavy-handedness” and that seemed to him “not a sufficiently weighty factor” to outweigh the claimant’s Article 8 rights. The claimant must have handled very many elderly and infirm patients many times on a daily basis throughout that period and yet complaints had arisen from a handful of people on two occasions separated by over four years. Notwithstanding these specific complaints, there was no evidence of consistent heavy-handedness over the years in any of the institutions in which she had worked. Foskett J did not believe that this consideration was weighed sufficiently, or at all, by the Detective Superintendent. The recitation of those allegations raised against her would of itself cause her “irredeemable harm” in seeking further employment.
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