The ever-growing list of public authorities entitled to enter and search premises (including a person’s home) includes the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which has the right under Schedule 9 of the Data Protection Act 1998.
To exercise the right, the ICO must obtain a warrant from a circuit judge on the basis that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that a breach of the data protection principles contained in the Act has occurred or is occurring, or that an offence under the Act has been or is being committed.
The ICO is empowered to enter premises and search them, to inspect any data processing equipment on the premises and to seize any documents or other material on the premises that may be evidence of a breach or an offence.
The ICO must, however, give the occupier of premises seven days’ notice that access to the premises is demanded and will be granted a warrant if access has been unreasonably refused. The occupier also has the right to be heard by the judge prior to the issue of the warrant.
This seems as reasonable as one would expect. However, in ‘exceptional circumstances’ (i.e. where delay would defeat the object of the entry) a warrant can be granted without notice. Similarly, the usual rule that the warrant must be executed at a reasonable hour does not apply if the ICO ‘reasonably suspects’ that the evidence it is seeking would not be there at that time. The ICO is entitled to use ‘reasonable force’ to execute its warrant.
When a new Bill currently before Parliament becomes law, it will be a criminal offence to obstruct or fail to assist a person executing a warrant by deliberately or recklessly making false statements in response to requests by the ICO for information.