Harassment fears as civil servants face being named in court documents

Unions react to Court of Appeal decision that officials should not routinely have their names redacted from evidence papers
The Royal Courts of Justice in London. Photo: R/DV/RS/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

By Jim Dunton

08 Feb 2024

Rank-and-file civil servants could soon be identified by name in documents submitted to the High Court for judicial reviews of controversial government decisions – losing the anonymity that presently protects them.

Civil service unions have warned that the decision will result in increased stress and anxiety levels, as well as a heightened risk of harassment.

Current government practice is to redact names of departmental staff from papers unless those officials are part of the senior civil service. But a Court of Appeal judgment has said there is no justification for the redaction of names “as a matter of routine”.

In the judgment, which was handed down 2 February, Lord Justice David Bean said routinely redacting the names of civil servants below SCS level was “inimical to open government and unsupported by authority”.

He added: “If parliament takes the view that members of the civil service have a general right to anonymity in judicial review litigation then it should enact a primary statute to that effect.”

According to the Cabinet Office’s most recent set of annual civil service statistics, there were 7,385 members of the senior civil service as of 31 March last year.

The judgment said the government was asserting the right of all but roughly 2% of the roughly 500,000-strong civil service to remain anonymous, “save in exceptional circumstances”.

Government lawyers had argued that civil servants below SCS grades had an “expectation of confidentiality” and were entitled to a greater degree of protection from personal exposure than their more senior colleagues. They also said there was a risk that naming all civil servants in court documents would lead to more cases of harassment.

Stress and anxiety 'inevitable'

Civil service unions expressed fears for the welfare of officials whose names could now be made public and wanted to hear the Cabinet Office’s reaction to the judgment.

Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of the Prospect union – which represents professionals in the civil service – said officials made decisions in their capacity as civil servants, not as individuals.

“Prospect is concerned that the extension of naming all civil servants in legal proceedings could lead to staff, even at very junior levels, being named,” he said. “This inevitably will cause stress and anxiety amongst many, given the nature of the sometimes controversial decisions civil servants need to take on a daily basis on behalf of government.

“There are concerns that the release of this information could lead to them being targeted, attacked on social media or subject to media intrusion when they are not in a position to respond.”

Fran Heathcote, general secretary of PCS, the civil service’s biggest union, said the judgment was “as disappointing as it is unsatisfactory” because junior officials had little-to-no say in policy decisions.

“This flawed judgment could place hundreds of thousands of civil servants at increased risk, exposing their names and job roles to the public, when all they will have been doing is their job – carrying out the instructions of the elected government,” she said.

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union – which represents civil service leaders both in the SCS and at lower grades – said the government’s current redaction practice had applied for many years and sought to balance the rights of civil servants at more junior grades with an “inevitable” degree of public visibility for senior officials.

“Given this judgment, we will be discussing both the response and implications for civil servants with the Cabinet Office,” he said.

Last week’s Court of Appeal judgment sprang out of an ongoing judicial review involving the Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. The case centres on proposals to remove the requirement for houses of multiple occupation to be licensed if asylum seekers are to be housed in them.

Judge Jonathan Swift ruled at a hearing in November that it was “impermissible” for the names of junior civil servants to be routinely redacted from decision-making documents submitted by the departments. The point was challenged by the Government Legal Department at the Court of Appeal, resulting in last week’s judgment.

CSW sought a government response. A spokesperson said: “We are considering the Court of Appeal's judgment.”

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