European Court of Human Rights



Monitoring workers’ emails – can you?

Remember the 2016 ECHR decision in Barbulescu v Romania, which said that a Romanian employer acted lawfully when it monitored an employee’s Yahoo messenger account?

Something unusual has happened.  There has been an appeal from the Chamber of the ECHR (7 judges, who take most of the decisions) to the Grand Chamber (17 judges, the final tier and unusual).  And the Grand Chamber has come down more in favour of the right to privacy and reversed the decision.

It’s a complicated and nuanced judgment.  But the main point is that workers have a right to respect for privacy in the workplace, and if an employer is going to monitor their emails and messages, the employer should (exceptional reasons aside) tell the worker that their communications might be monitored.  Here, although the employee knew it was forbidden to use work computers for personal purposes, he had not been told that the employer was monitoring his communications.

Accordingly the ECHR held that the Romanian court’s decision was wrong, and that Romanian law failed to strike a fair balance between the employer’s and the employee’s interests.  Accordingly there was a breach of Article 8 and the employee was entitled to compensation.