In the long-running case of Bărbulescu v Romania, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) looked at an employer's right to examine an employee's use of office computers for sending personal communications during working hours, in breach of the employer's internal regulations, and ruled that the monitoring of the electronic communications was reasonable and an acceptable means of ensuring compliance with the rules. That decision has now been overturned by the Grand Chamber of the ECHR.
The case concerned a Romanian man, Mr Bărbulescu, who was employed by a private company as an engineer in charge of sales and, at his employer's request, had created a Yahoo! Messenger account for the sole purpose of responding to clients' enquiries. He was aware of his employer's policy forbidding the use of any office equipment for personal communications and employees had been warned that use of company resources for personal purposes was prohibited after the dismissal of a colleague for breaching the rule.
On 13 July 2007, Mr Bărbulescu was informed that his Yahoo! Messenger account had been monitored and the discovery made that it had been used for private correspondence. He replied in writing that he had only used the account for professional purposes.
His employer then presented him with a 45-page transcript of messages he had sent and received between 5 and 13 July, including all those he had exchanged with his fiancée and brother. Mr Bărbulescu was subsequently dismissed.
He argued without success before the courts in Romania that the monitoring of the account breached domestic law and amounted to a breach of his right to respect for privacy, enshrined in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In rejecting his arguments on appeal, the ECHR found that it was not unreasonable for an employer to verify that workers were devoting themselves to their professional tasks during working hours. Monitoring the account was, in practice, the only means of ensuring Mr Bărbulescu's compliance with the employer's explicit policy. No mention had been made during the proceedings of any of the contents of the personal communications, nor was the identity of the recipients made known.
In the ECHR's view, the level of monitoring was limited in scope and proportionate, and there was nothing to indicate that the Romanian courts had failed to strike a fair balance between Mr Bărbulescu's right to respect for his private life and his employer's interests.
Mr Bărbulescu appealed to the Grand Chamber of the ECHR, where the matter was considered by 17 judges, which held by a majority of 11 to six that there had been a violation of Article 8 of the Convention.
The Grand Chamber observed that the domestic courts had failed to determine, in particular, whether Mr Bărbulescu had received prior notice from his employer of the possibility that his communications might be monitored. Nor was account taken of the fact that he had not been told of the extent or the nature of the monitoring, or of the degree of intrusion into his private life and correspondence. Furthermore, they had failed to determine if there were specific reasons to justify the introduction of the monitoring, whether Mr Bărbulescu's employer could have used measures that involved less intrusion into his private life and correspondence or whether there were safeguards in place to ensure that his communications could not be accessed by his employer without him being notified in advance of that eventuality.
In the light of these findings, the Grand Chamber found that the Romanian courts had failed to protect Mr Bărbulescu's right to respect for his private life and correspondence and had consequently failed to strike a fair balance between his interests and those of his employer.
Guidance published by the Information Commissioner's Office, 'The Employment Practices Code', contains specific advice on compliance with UK legislation on monitoring electronic communications.