Exposed pedophile wants apology

November 23, 2004

A parole officer searched a criminal database to unearth a convicted child-sex offender. Now he wants her to say sorry. Leonie Lamont reports.

By day Liz Munro was a probation and parole officer. In her spare time she was president of the Scottish Dancing Association in NSW.

But when the two roles collided – when she made an unauthorised search of the criminal database and unearthed a pedophile teaching Scottish dance to children – she started one of the most contentious privacy cases to come before the legal system.

What she discovered was that Andrew Manners, who was filling in as a teacher at his mother’s dance school, had been convicted in Queensland in 1998 for offences against minors. He was on parole and was prohibited from working with children.

Ms Munro immediately rang Manners, telling him he had 10 minutes to start phoning all the parents about what he had done. If he did not, she would ring them herself. She also rang his parole officer and told him of the parole breach. Manners was arrested the next day, October 23, 2002.

While he was in custody, Ms Munro again accessed the database of Manners’s visitors at the jail, and rang one of them, telling them he had pleaded guilty to a new offence of sexual assault involving a 10-year-old dance student. She suggested that the visitor, a family member, inquire about the welfare of children with whom Manners had had contact.

Manners lodged a complaint over what he says was a breach of privacy by the Department of Corrective Services. Its internal review found local management’s decision to counsel Ms Munro was appropriate. It also sent her a warning letter outlining her obligations under the Privacy and Personal Information Protection Act. The department has now apologised to Manners and his family for the release of the information.

Manners and his mother were dissatisfied with this. They wanted officers’ access restricted to cases they were working on, and a personal apology and expression of regret from Ms Munro.

“This type of punishment only gives other people who may divulge information they are privy to the impression that they can get away with virtually no punishment,” Mrs Manners told the Administrative Decisions Tribunal, which heard their complaint last week.

The deputy Privacy Commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim, told the tribunal that although the Privacy and Personal Information Protection Act did not draw a clear line between the conduct of an agency and the conduct of a public sector official, agencies had to be held responsible for their employees’ conduct when it came to the protection of personal information.

Last Tuesday the tribunal found that the department had taken every reasonable step to ensure its database collection and access complied with privacy legislation.

It said that when Ms Munro first made her unauthorised search, the computer flag on her screen warned her she was not authorised. It said this was an adequate safeguard, so did not constitute a breach of the act by the department.

The tribunal said that when Ms Munro told parents of Manners’s record, and contacted the visitor, she was acting in her private capacity. It found the department had not breached the act.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections said the computer flagging system was being re-examined, because it was outdated.

In discussions with the Attorney-General’s Department about a privacy code of practice, the department has asked for exemptions so that probation and parole officers have access to personal files.

When the discussions were complete, there would be “extensive” training for officers about their obligations under the privacy act, the spokeswoman said.


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