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Book Review: “Privacy Law Handbook”, edited by Keith Mathieson – Hugh Tomlinson QC

In less than a decade privacy has moved from the outer limits of media law to its centre.  The privacy injunction has replaced the “gagging writ” as the media bogeyman threatening investigative journalism and proper reporting.  While the number of defamation actions continues to decline, privacy (and “phone hacking”) cases are on everyone’s lips. The new Law Society Privacy Law Handbook is the first book devoted exclusively to this area.  This is perhaps surprising.  Other authors may have been held back by the furious pace of development of the law – in my own case this has certainly been the excuse given to my publishers. But Keith Mathieson and his team from the leading media defendant law firm, Reynolds Porter Chamberlain, have not been deterred.   They have set out to provide – in 200 pages – a handbook of the law of privacy as it stood in September 2010.   The project has been conspicuously successful.

The book covers the “central torts” of breach of confidence, misuse of private information and “data protection”.  It deals with the relationship between privacy and “overlapping rights” and then swings through surveillance, intrusion, medical confidentiality and the courts before coming to rest at press and broadcasting codes.   The essential elements of each of these large topics is covered clearly and accurately.  The authors are not tempted by the byways of legal history or the Commonwealth case law.  They do not speculate about the large, unanswered questions – such as the actionability of photographs taken in public places or the limits of the concept of false private information – but stick to the main roads, as a “handbook” should.

Keith Mathieson’s chapter on the misuse of private information is a careful 25 page summary of the current law which avoids prescription.  He does not pronounce the death of the “kiss ‘n’ tell” story  but gently suggests that even a person with a story to tell “may still fail when it comes to the balancing exercise”.   Although claimant privacy lawyers may think that “Editorial latitude” receives a little too much emphasis, the chapter provides a good overview of the relevant material.

The chapter on “Rights against Intrusion: trespass, harassment and nuisance” is a helpful reminder of the other areas of law which can be relevant in “privacy” cases.  Reference is made to two unreported cases in which injunctions have been obtained against paparazzi photographers to prevent the harassment of well known individuals.

The book is supported and updated by the RPC Privacy Blog – which has recently provided useful summaries of the law relating to “super injunctions” and “anonymity“.

The Privacy Law Handbook will be of considerable practical value to everyone who has to deal with privacy issues in the course of their legal or journalistic work.  It provides, as Keith Mathieson rightly says in his Preface, a “useful road map”.  Bewildered practitioners touring the great open spaces of privacy law should have a copy at hand.

Hugh Tomlinson QC is a member of Matrix Chambers and of the Inforrm Committee.

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