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Malone v Metropolitan Police Commissioner [1979] Ch 344

Telephone tapping – Unlawful interception

Facts

Malone (M) was charged with handling stolen property. During the Crown Court prosecution of M, the prosecution admitted that the Post Office (P) had intercepted M’s telephone conversations under the authority of the Secretary of State for use by the police. M sought declarations against the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis that such conduct was unlawful and for an injunction against the Metropolitan Police Commissioner (D) to restrain interception of his telephone conversations.

Issue

The issue in question was whether the telephone tapping by P by means of recording telephone conversations from wires which, though connected to the subscriber's premises, are not on them, is unlawful under English law.

Held

There was no right of property in words transmitted over a telephone apart from copyright, nor was there a right to privacy on the telephone in English law. The court also found that P was not contractually bound to confidentiality. Moreover, it was not D, the defendant, who had intercepted the conversations, it was P, and no unlawful conduct could be established as there was no law against the Post Office tapping telephones by means of recording from wires which were not on the subscriber's premises. M’s declaration was refused. This case later came before the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Malone v. The United Kingdom (1984) 7 EHRR 14 which held that the interception was an ‘interference by a public authority’ with the right to private life, the scope and clarity of the exercise of this power being unclear under English law.


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