CONTROVERSIAL ‘taxicams’ that were ordered to be fitted in all Southampton cabs could now be ripped out after they were ruled illegal.

Hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money was spent on installing the cameras despite opposition from drivers, who themselves took the city council to court in a bid to have the cameras removed.

A tribunal has now ruled that the authority was wrong to insist that all cabs in the city should be fitted with the socalled ‘spy cams’ because they breached human rights by continuously recording conversations.

The council was appealing an enforcement notice by the Information Commissioner who said that while the visual recording was lawful, the audio recording contravened data protection and privacy laws.

During the tribunal the council argued that the footage was vital in the fight against crime.

It cited examples of how the recordings had been used by Hampshire police to help with inquiries 193 times, including offences of sexual assault, racially aggravated abuse and theft.

Sound recordings taken from a cab were even used as evidence against Arben Lleshi, who was convicted earlier this week of the murder of Agim Hoxha.

However, the tribunal ruled that the right to privacy outweighed the crime reduction benefits.

Passengers and drivers, it said, should not reasonably expect to have their conversations continuously monitored as, once fitted, the cameras could not be turned off, even if the vehicle was being used privately by the driver.

The cameras were introduced in 2009 as part of a licensing condition and cost up to £700 each, of which cabbies have to pay about £300. The rest was paid for by the Government.

About half of the 1,000 hackney carriages and private hire cars in Southampton have the cameras installed, costing the taxpayer about £200,000.

The ruling has been welcomed by drivers.

Southampton Trade Association chairman Clive Johnson said: “They were forced on us without, in my opinion, the proper consultation.”

The mandatory equipping of all taxis with cameras has now been suspended.

The city council’s licensing panel will now meet to discuss whether the cameras have to be removed or can be adjusted to disable the sound.

Deputy leader Councillor Jacqui Rayment said: “The tribunal and the Information Commission accept that an unspecified triggered or ‘panic button’ system for audio recordings would be acceptable, although it has not been made clear how this would work in practical terms.”

The city council was not able to comment on how much the court case had cost it.