I reported earlier this week on the outcome of the first case of this type to reach the Tribunal. Here is my analysis of the key points.
Central London Community Healthcare NHS Trust v IC (EA/2012/00111) concerned the first monetary penalty notice (MPN) to be appealed to the First-Tier Tribunal. The Trust’s appeal has been dismissed by the Tribunal (Professor Angel, Rosalind Tatam and Paul Taylor). The decision can be accessed here: Central London NHS Trust v IC EA20120111.
The background is that the Trust had, on some 45 occasions, faxed a list of palliative care in-patients to the wrong fax number (namely to that of a member of the public who notified the Trust and said he had destroyed the faxes – but he was never traced and destruction could not be confirmed). This was sensitive personal data: it included names as well as information about patients’ medical diagnoses, treatment and domestic situations.
The IC found that the Trust had breached the seventh data protection principle, which requires that:
Appropriate technical and organisational measures shall be taken against unauthorised or unlawful processing of personal data and against accidental loss or destruction of, or damage to, personal data.
The IC decided that the three preconditions for the exercise of his discretion to issue a MPN under section 55A of the Data Protection Act 1998 had been met here. These conditions are (i) there was a serious contravention of the DPA, (ii) this contravention was of a kind likely to cause substantial damage or substantial distress, and (iii) the contravention was either deliberate, or the data controller knew or ought to have known that there was a serious risk that a contravention would occur and would be of a kind likely to cause substantial damage or distress, but failed to take reasonable steps to prevent it happening.
The IC is empowered to impose MPNs of up to £500,000. In this case, the amount was £90,000.
The Tribunal’s jurisdiction
On the Trust’s appeal, one of the first issues for the Tribunal was the extent of its statutory powers under section 49 of the DPA (which mirrors section 58 of FOIA): the Tribunal agreed with the Trust that, as with appeals under FOIA, the Tribunal had jurisdiction to consider the matter de novo; it was not restricted to a review along public law lines. It also found that it could either allow the appeal, or substitute an alternative MPN (including one imposing a higher penalty than that imposed by the IC), or substitute an enforcement notice instead (paragraphs 36-39).
Alleged indication that no MPN would be issued
The only point of evidence in dispute was the Trust’s contention that the IC’s enforcement team had indicated during the investigation that no MPN would be issued. The Tribunal found that the Commissioner’s enforcement officer “did not give any serious indication or assurance that there would be no fine or MPN in this case which in any way excluded the IC from deciding to issue an MPN” (paragraph 46).
The IC’s decision-making process
The decision to impose a penalty is taken by a Deputy Commissioner, in consultation with an internal working party comprising various senior managers within the ICO and one of the ICO’s enforcement lawyers. Having decided that an MPN should be issued, the ICO determined the amount by reference to an internal, unpublished framework as follows:
(i) Serious = £40,000 to £100,000
(ii) Very serious = more than £100,000 but less than £250,000
(iii) Most serious = more than £250,000 up to the maximum of £500,000.
It decided that this case was in the “serious” category. Its methodology was then to take the midpoint of that band and consider any aggravating or mitigating circumstances.
As required by the DPA, the ICO then issued the Trust with a Notice of Intent to issue a MPN to the value of £90,000. The Trust accepted that a financial penalty was warranted, but disputed the amount, making submissions on mitigating factors. The ICO maintained its position and issued the MPN.
‘Assessments’ and the statutory bar under section 55(3A)
By section 55(3A) of the DPA, the IC may not use anything which came to his attention pursuant to his carrying out an ‘assessment’ under section 51(7) when deciding on whether an MPN can be imposed. The Trust argued that the IC’s investigation of its voluntarily-reported breach constituted an ‘assessment’.
The Tribunal considered the rival submissions on the legislative intent behind the bar imposed by section 55(3A) (though on this point it rejected the Trust’s invitation to take ministerial statements into account, on Pepper v Hart principles) and on the range of powers open to the IC. It preferred those of the IC: section 51(7) is directed at educating and advising data controllers, on the basis of a consensual engagement, with a view to avoiding future breaches of the DPA. The aim of the statutory bar provided for under section 55A(3A) is to prevent the IC from using information he obtains via the educational/advisory process provided for under section 51(7) to impose an MPN on a data controller. This case did not involve such an educational/advisory process. There was no assessment under section 51(7) (paragraphs 87-91).
The IC’s adherence to its own policy
The Trust did not contend that the IC failed to apply the statutory guidance on MPNs. It did, however, argue that it failed to consider or adhere to its own non-statutory policy on the reporting of breaches, which said that “the Commissioner will not normally take regulatory action unless a data controller declines to take any recommended action, he has other reasons to doubt future compliance or there is a need to provide reassurance to the public”.
Again, the Tribunal found for the IC: the statutory guidance was what really mattered, but in any event the IC had not departed from its own policies (paragraphs 102-103).
The IC’s exercising of its discretion
Where the conditions for the issuing of an MPN are met, the ICO still has a discretion as to whether or not to issue one. The Trust argued that the ICO had failed to exercise its discretion lawfully: there was no evidence of it taking into account relevant considerations.
The particular considerations relied upon by the Trust were (i) the ICO failed to take proper account of the overriding policy objective to encourage cooperative working between it and data controllers and failed to give sufficient credit for the Trust’s transparency and its co-operative stance, (ii) the effect of the ICO’s policy to impose high profile fines on data controllers who voluntarily report incidents and cooperate with its investigations is to discourage other controllers from being open and transparent, and (iii) the ICO’s approach to cases of this nature creates an unfair and unsustainable distinction between those data controllers who, when suspected of being in breach of the DPA, are required to submit to assessment notices or are requested to undergo consensual audits and those, like the Trust in this case, who voluntarily submit themselves to regulatory scrutiny. The Trust argued that the ICO had failed to think about these points.
The Tribunal rejected these criticisms as misconceived (paragraph 122). While the ICO’s process could have been more comprehensible, it could not be said to have overlooked relevant matters.
Consideration of mitigating factors
Next, the Trust contended that the ICO had failed properly to consider the mitigating factors on which it made submissions. Again, the Tribunal disagreed. The ICO had not erred in this way. In any event, the Tribunal did not seem to find the mitigating factors to be particularly forceful. It said:
“The fact that there was a voluntary notification cannot be given much weight when the Trust was under, in effect, an obligation to report (both to the ICO and to the NHS regionally). In any case it was reported over a month after the breach was discovered. Co-operation was the least that could be expected for such a serious breach. By the time the Trust informed the patients over three quarters were dead. There is still no absolute guarantee the sensitive information has been destroyed. The Trust’s mitigating features are therefore features to which we find the IC could not give much weight. In any case they are almost all post facto events and nothing about the wrongdoing” (paragraph 128).
The Trust’s criticisms of the IC’s decision on the amount of the MPN
The Trust said that the IC never explained its methodology for calculating the amount of the MPN – the three categories of seriousness, for example, were never mentioned, nor was the means of calculation. Once again, the Tribunal did not agree. It considered that the IC had made the principles behind its approach clear to the Trust prior to issuing the MPN.
Notable the Tribunal observed that “We find it interesting that the contravention is only categorised as “serious” and not “very serious” as it seems to us on the facts of this case the IC could have taken a more penal approach to the amount in question” (paragraph 138) and concluded that “We are satisfied that the ICO has reached a figure within a range of reasonable figures it could have considered” (paragraph 139). It also rejected the submission that the IC failed to take the mitigating factors into account when deciding on the amount of the MPN (paragraph 148).
Discount for early payment
The final issue considered by the Tribunal is of significant importance. MPNs provide for a discount (here: 20%) for early payment. If a data controller appeals an MPN and loses, can it still claim the discount? The Trust argued that, by refusing to keep the discount offer open pending the outcome of the appeal, the IC was penalising it for exercising its legal right to have its cased tested by a Tribunal. The Tribunal disagreed: “The purpose of the scheme would appear to us to encourage early payment and also to ensure there is an early resolution to the matter. There is no provision for a without prejudice payment” (paragraph 153). The IC did not err in refusing to keep the discount offer alive, and the Tribunal refused to restore that offer.
Data controllers who contravene the DPA in a serious or potentially serious way should take note of this last point, and indeed of the Tribunal’s first excursion into the new MPN appeal territory.
First-Tier Tribunal decisions are of course not binding on other First-Tier Tribunals. There will be more appeals against MPNs later this year. Panopticon will report on whether the principles from the Central London NHS Trust case are borne out by future decisions. For now, this decision is the best data controllers have to go on.
Tim Pitt-Payne QC appeared for the Trust. Anya Proops appeared for the IC.