Court visits: GDPR

Students MUST NOT publish anything they hear during court visits for this module – including on blogs and social media. There are serious legal risks in doing so. 

Students MUST keep their notes and reports secure. If they do not, there is a very serious risk of breaching data protection law – which protects people’s highly sensitive personal information. Students must follow the rules set out below for ensuring security. 

When students go to court, they hear highly sensitive information about people, and write this in notebooks. There is a strict duty in law to keep this kind of information confidential and secure – even though it has been discussed in open court. The law now means Coventry University could be fined millions of pounds for failing to protect information about people’s health, sexuality, criminal background, and more.

Notebooks can easily be lost or stolen.

University ethics

Special ethical approval has had to be obtained from the university to allow students to attend the magistrates’ courts and write about what they hear.

Gathering material for the portfolio for this module comes under the heading of fieldwork, or “research”. Ethics approval has to be given for all research:

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Highly sensitive: some problems with this module

The rights of “participants” are paramount. In this case, that means people appearing in court cases – who do not even know they are part of students’ fieldwork. Normally, that would be against the rules.

Ethics approval is a rigorous process. In the final year of the degree course, students must secure ethics approval themselves. For this module, it has already been done.

The university asks a number of questions about sensitive topics. For this module, several of the answers can set alarm bells ringing.

 

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On the face of it, these answers don’t seem to accord people their rights under data protection law. But there is no privacy in the courts. Students may well see people sent to prison, or remanded in custody (which usually means they go to prison while they wait to be tried). When that happens, the students can’t very well ask the defendant to sign a consent form. Would they be likely to do so?

These answers are a bit of a problem, too:

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It’s a criminal court. These things come up all the time. This kind of evidence is meant to be disclosed. It’s part of “open justice“. We expect students to report this, as part of their learning.

Justification

We need special justification for this. And here it is, as written by a Coventry professor:

1: Legitimate interest; the data is already public and there is a minimal privacy impact (as in the proceedings might be attended by anyone, and reported by the press). A safe method of note-taking has been designed. 

2: public task; the task of the institution is to educate through fieldwork using appropriate methods. 

Nonetheless, the university has a legal duty to keep this “data” (information) secure, once it is in students’ possession. That duty extends to students.

How to keep data secure – strict rules for students

Students must comply with:

  • The Contempt of Court Act, and other laws protecting the right to a fair trial
  • The university’s code of ethics
  • The Editors’ Code of Practice
  • The General Data Protection Regulation

As part of this, a strict procedure (a “protocol”) has been put in place to minimise the risk:

Attendance on a supervised trip to court is now mandatory. Extra visits have been scheduled to enable this.

At the court, the lecturer will issue each student with a notebook. These will be taken to and from the court by the lecturer in a secure bag.

Students will return to the Ellen Terry Building as a group immediately after leaving court.

Once back, each student will scan their notes to One Drive (not to email – this is not sufficiently secure). They will then return the notebook to the lecturer.

Once students have confirmed that they have successfully saved a scan of their notes, the lecturer will remove the original notes from the notebook, to be securely destroyed.

The same notebooks will be issued to the next batch of students.

The security procedure does not end there:

Any reports and rough drafts should be written on the laptops issued to students by the university. These laptops have been encrypted; most private laptops are not.

Reports should not be transferred to a personal hard drive or any other external device.

Reports should not be printed out: print-outs can accidentally be left on a printer.

Once reports have been submitted for assessment and marked, they should be deleted from laptops and the One Drive, along with any drafts or other sensitive material (students will still be able to read them on Moodle). There is an exception to this if students do not secure a pass; if this happens, reports should be deleted after the summer resit has been marked. 

What about professional journalists?

Students might reasonably ask whether professional journalists take all these measures when they cover the courts.

For decades, the answer has been No.

In fact, it has long been considered good practice for reporters to keep their notebooks for at least three years, until any risk of legal action over a story has passed.

The new rules under the General Data Protection Regulation, introduced in May 2018, may mean that journalists and their employers are forced to think again.

GDPR gives media organisations exemption from some of the duties to protect private data – and tell people what information they have on people. This is because it would be impossible to write critical stories about people without this exemption. This is especially true for investigative journalism. But journalists must be able to show they believed their stories were in the public interest.

There is a public interest in court cases being reported.

But because students cannot publish the stories they write for this module, they are unlikely to be protected by the exemption for public-interest journalism.

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