It is not often that employers will be expected to take an interest in the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) but its recent judgment in the case of López Ribalda and others v Spain is worth their attention.

Available at https://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng#{"itemid":["001-197098"]}, the case was brought by five Spanish nationals claiming that their employer had dismissed them on the basis of video surveillance implemented in breach of their right to respect for their private life, as guaranteed by Article 8 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

The original incident took place 10 years ago after a Spanish supermarket identified a significant discrepancy between actual and expected stock levels and decided to introduce cameras (some hidden) to monitor the store’s cashiers.

Ms Lopez Ribalda and four colleagues were seen stealing items and helping customers to do so. When they admitted the theft, they were dismissed but later claimed unfair dismissal because of the use of covert surveillance.

A Spanish court initially held the measures taken by the employer were justified, appropriate, necessary and proportionate.

However, when the case eventually reached the ECtHR, it initially said that the use of cameras was “intrusive”, that a fair balance between the parties’ rights had not been struck and that covert surveillance at work breached the Article 8 Right to Privacy.

In 2018, the Spanish government asked for the case to be referred to the Court’s Grand Chamber of 17 judges and it is that ruling that has now been published.

The Grand Chamber notes that the applicants did not at any time dispute the authenticity or accuracy of the footage recorded by means of video-surveillance; their main complaint being based on the lack of prior information about the installation of the cameras.

Given that other evidence was presented regarding the claimants’ guilt, including till receipts showing that a significant number of purchases had been cancelled without payment, the Court decided that the use in evidence of the images obtained by video surveillance did not undermine the fairness of the proceedings in the case.

It ruled by 14 votes to three, that there had been no violation of Article 8 of the Convention.

Comment by Alan Price, CEO and HR expert at BrightHR

Many businesses will use surveillance cameras to monitor employee activity and guard against instances of theft or misconduct.

Although the ECtHR ruled that it was not necessary for this instance, it is always advisable to inform staff of the presence and purpose of any CCTV cameras.

After all, failing to do so could place employers at risk of breaching mutual trust and confidence, regardless of whether any misconduct occurred.

Last reviewed 8 November 2019