How to apply the DPA

January 15th, 2015 by Robin Hopkins

Section 40 of FOIA is where the Freedom of Information Act (mantra: disclose, please) intersects with the Data Protection Act 1998 (mantra: be careful how you process/disclose, please).

When it comes to requests for the disclosure of personal data under FOIA, the DPA condition most commonly relied upon to justify showing the world the personal data of a living individual is condition 6(1) from Schedule 2:

The processing is necessary for the purposes of legitimate interests pursued by the data controller or by the third party or parties to whom the data are disclosed, except where the processing is unwarranted in any particular case by reason of prejudice to the rights and freedoms or legitimate interests of the data subject.

That condition has multiple elements. What do they mean, and how do they mesh together? In Goldsmith International Business School v IC and Home Office (GIA/1643/2014), the Upper Tribunal (Judge Wikeley) has given its view. See here Goldsmiths. This comes in the form of its endorsement of the following 8 propositions (submitted by the ICO, represented by 11KBW’s Chris Knight).

Proposition 1: Condition 6(1) of Schedule 2 to the DPA requires three questions to be asked:

(i) Is the data controller or the third party or parties to whom the data are disclosed pursuing a legitimate interest or interests?

(ii) Is the processing involved necessary for the purposes of those interests?

(iii) Is the processing unwarranted in this case by reason of prejudice to the rights and freedoms or legitimate interests of the data subject?

Proposition 2: The test of “necessity” under stage (ii) must be met before the balancing test under stage (iii) is applied.

Proposition 3: “Necessity” carries its ordinary English meaning, being more than desirable but less than indispensable or absolute necessity.

Proposition 4: Accordingly the test is one of “reasonable necessity”, reflecting the European jurisprudence on proportionality, although this may not add much to the ordinary English meaning of the term.

Proposition 5: The test of reasonable necessity itself involves the consideration of alternative measures, and so “a measure would not be necessary if the legitimate aim could be achieved by something less”; accordingly, the measure must be the “least restrictive” means of achieving the legitimate aim in question.

Proposition 6: Where no Article 8 privacy rights are in issue, the question posed under Proposition 1 can be resolved at the necessity stage, i.e. at stage (ii) of the three-part test.

Proposition 7: Where Article 8 privacy rights are in issue, the question posed under Proposition 1 can only be resolved after considering the excessive interference question posted by stage (iii).

The UT also added this proposition 8, confirming that the oft-cited cases on condition 6(1) were consistent with each other (proposition 8: The Supreme Court in South Lanarkshire did not purport to suggest a test which is any different to that adopted by the Information Tribunal in Corporate Officer).

Those who are called upon to apply condition 6(1) will no doubt take helpful practical guidance from that checklist of propositions.

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin

Campaigning journalism is still journalism: Global Witness and s.32 DPA

December 23rd, 2014 by Peter Lockley

In an important development in the on-going saga of Steinmetz and others v Global Witness, the ICO has decided that the campaigning NGO is able to rely on the ‘journalism’ exemption under s.32 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA).

The decision has major implications for journalists working both within and outside the mainstream media, not least because it makes clear that those engaged in campaigning journalism can potentially pray in aid the s. 32 exemption. Importantly, it also confirms that the Article 10 right to freedom of expression remains a significant right within the data protection field, notwithstanding recent developments, including Leveson and Google Spain, which have tended to place privacy rights centre-stage (Panopticons passim, maybe even ad nauseam).

Loyal readers will be familiar with the background to the Global Witness case, for which see original post by Jason Coppel QC.

In brief: Global Witness is an NGO which reports and campaigns on natural resource related corruption around the world. Global Witness is one of a number of organisations which has been reporting on allegations that a particular company, BSG Resources Ltd (“BSGR”), secured a major mining concession in Guinea through corrupt means. A number of individuals who are all in some way connected with BSGR (including Benny Steinmetz, reported to be its founder) brought claims against Global Witness under the DPA. The claims included a claim under s. 7 (failure to respond to subject access requests); s. 10 (obligation to cease processing in response to a damage and distress notification); s. 13 (claim for compensation for breach of the data protection principles) and s. 14 (claim for rectification of inaccurate data). Significantly, Mr Steinmetz alleged, amongst other things, that because he was personally so closely connected to BSGR, any information about BSGR amounted to his own personal data. If successful, the claims would have the effect of preventing Global Witness from investigating or publishing further reports on the Guinea corruption controversy.

Global Witness’s primary line of defence in the High Court proceedings was that all of the claims were misconceived because it was protected by the ‘journalism’ exemption provided for by s. 32 of the DPA. After a procedural spat in March (Panopticon report here), Global Witness’s application for a stay of the claims under s. 32(4) DPA was allowed by the High Court. The matter was then passed to the ICO for a possible determination under s.45 DPA. (In summary, such a determination will be made if the ICO concludes, against the data controller, either: (a) that the data controller is not processing the personal data only for the purposes of journalism or (b) it is not processing the data with a view to future publication of journalistic material).

In fact, the ICO declined to make a determination under s. 45. Moreover, he decided that, with respect to the subject access requests made by the claimants, Global Witness had been entitled to rely on the exemption afforded under s. 32. With respect to the latter conclusion, the ICO held that there were four questions which fell to be considered:

(1) whether the personal data is processed only for journalism, art or literature (s.32(1))

When dealing with this question, the ICO referred to his recent guidance Data Protection and journalism: a guide for the media, in which he accepted that non-media organisations could rely on the s.32 exemption, provided that the specific data in question were processed solely with a view to publishing information, opinions or ideas for general public consumption (p.30). He went on to conclude that this requirement could be met even where the publication is part of a wider campaign, provided that the data is not also used directly for the organisation’s other purposes (e.g. research or selling services). The ICO was satisfied that this condition was met for the data in question.

(2) whether that processing is taking place with a view to publication of some material (s.32(1)(a))

It is apparent from the decision letter that Global Witness was able to point to articles it had already published on the Simandou controversy, and since the controversy was on-going, to show it intended to publish more such articles. The ICO was satisfied that, in the circumstances, this second question should be answered in the affirmative.

(3) whether the data controller has a reasonable belief that publication is in the public interest (s.32(1)(b))

The ICO emphasised that the question he had to ask himself was not whether, judged objectively, the publication was in the public interest, but rather whether Global Witness reasonably believed publication was in the public interest. In the circumstances of this case – small NGO shines a spotlight on activities of large multinational in one of the world’s poorest countries amid allegations of serious corruption – he readily accepted that Global Witness held such a belief, particularly as the data related to the data subjects’ professional activities, for which they in any event had a lower expectation of privacy than in relation to their private lives.

(4) whether the data controller has a reasonable belief that compliance is incompatible with journalism. (s.32(1)(c))

Again, the focus here was on Global Witness’ reasonable beliefs. The ICO accepted that Global Witness had reasonable concerns that complying with the subject access requests which had been made by the claimants would prejudice its journalistic activity in two ways:, first, by giving the data subjects advance warning of the nature and direction of Global Witness’ investigations, which could be used to thwarting effect and, second, by creating an environment in which the organisation’s sources might lose confidence in Global Witness’ ability to protect their identities.

The decision will no doubt substantially reassure campaigning and investigative journalists everywhere. Unsurprisingly, it has been widely reported in the media (see e.g. Guardian article, Times article and FT article here). Notably, the FT reports that the claimants are asserting that they intend to challenge the decision. We will have to wait until the New Year to discover whether these assertions translate into action and, if they do translate into action, what form that action will take.

Anya Proops of 11KBW acts for Global Witness.

Peter Lockley

Loss of personal data: £20k award upheld on appeal

September 16th, 2014 by Robin Hopkins

If you breach your legal duties as regards personal data in your control, what might you expect to pay by way of compensation to the affected individual? The received wisdom has tended to be something along these lines. First, has the individual suffered any financial loss? If not, they are not entitled to a penny under s. 13 DPA. Second, even if they get across that hurdle, how much should they get for distress? Generally, not very much – reported awards have tended to be very low (in the low thousands at most).

All of that is very comforting for data controllers who run into difficulties.

That picture is, however, increasingly questionable. “Damage” (the precondition for any award, under s. 13 DPA) could mean something other than “financial loss” – other sorts of damage (even a nominal sort of damage) can, it seems, serve as the trigger. Also, provided the evidence is sufficiently persuasive, it seems that awards – whether under the DPA or at common law (negligence) – could actually be substantial.

These trends are evident in the judgment of the Court of Appeal of Northern Ireland in CR19 v Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland [2014] NICA 54.

The appellant, referred to as CR19, was a police officer with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Due to his exposure to some serious terrorist incidents, he developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); he also developed a habit of excessive alcohol consumption. He left the Constabulary in 2001. In 2002, there was a burglary at Castlereagh Police, apparently carried out on behalf of a terrorist organisation. Data and records on officers including CR19 were stolen.

The Constabulary admitted both negligence and a breach of the seventh data protection principle (failure to take appropriate technical and organisational measures). The issue at trial was the amount of compensation to which CR19 was entitled.

Note the losses for which CR19 sought compensation: he claimed that, as a result of the stress which that data loss incident caused him, his PTSD and alcohol problems worsened, he lost out on an employment opportunity and that his house had been devalued as a result of threats to the property and the package of security measures that had been implemented for protection.

The trial judge heard evidence from a number of parties, including medical experts on both sides. He found some aspects of CR19’s evidence unsatisfactory. Overall, however, he awarded CR19 £20,000 (plus interest) for the Constabulary’s negligence. He did not expressly deal with any award under s. 13 of the DPA.

CR19 appealed, saying the award was too low. His appeal was largely dismissed: the trial judge had been entitled to reach his conclusions on the evidence before him.

Further, the s. 13 DPA claim added nothing to the quantum. The Court of Appeal considered the cases of Halliday (a £750 award) and AB (£2,250) (both reported on Panopticon) and concluded as follows (para. 24):

“In this case we have earlier recorded that three eminent psychiatrists gave professional evidence as to the distress sustained by CR19 as a consequence of the break-in. While accepting that the breach and its consequences in this case are of a different order to the matters considered in Halliday or AB, we conclude that the damages for distress arising from the breach of the Data Protection Act must be considered to be subsumed into the judge’s award which, while rejected as too low by the appellant, was by no means an insignificant award. The assessment took account of the distress engendered by the breach of data protection. We cannot conceive of any additional evidence that might be relevant to any additional damages for distress in respect of breach of section 4. Accordingly, we affirm the award of compensation made by the learned trial judge. However, in view of Arden LJ’s reasoning in Halliday, we conclude that the appellant must in addition be entitled to nominal damages of £1.00 to reflect the fact that there was an admitted breach of section 4 of the Data Protection Act.”

Whilst it is not strictly correct to read the CR19 judgment as affirming a DPA award for £20,000 (that award was for negligence), the judgment is nonetheless interesting from a DPA perspective in a number of respects, including these:

(i) While it was conceded in Halliday that nominal damage suffices as “damage” for s. 13(1) purposes, that conclusion looks like it is being applied more widely.

(ii) One problem in Halliday (and to an extent also in AB) was the lack of cogent evidence supporting the alleged damage. The CR19 case illustrates how evidence, including expert medical evidence, can be deployed to effect in data breach cases (whether based on negligence or on the DPA).

(iii) Unlawful acts with respect to individuals’ personal information can, it seems, lead one way or another to a substantial award. The DPA may aim to offer relatively modest awards (so said the Court of Appeal in Halliday), but serious misuse or loss of personal data can nonetheless be very damaging, and the law will recognise and compensate for this where appropriate.

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin

Facebook, FOI and children

August 6th, 2014 by Robin Hopkins

The Upper Tribunal has got its teeth into personal data disputes on a number of occasions in recent months – Edem was followed by Farrand, and now Surrey Heath Borough Council v IC and Morley [2014] UKUT 0330 (AAC): Morley UT decision. Panopticon reported on the first-instance Morley decision in 2012. In brief: Mr Morley asked for information about members of the local authority’s Youth Council who had provided input into a planning application. The local authority withheld the names of the Youth Councillors (who were minors) under s. 40(2) of FOAI (personal data). In a majority decision, the First-Tier Tribunal ordered that some of those names be disclosed, principally on the grounds that it seemed that they appeared on the Youth Council’s (closed) Facebook page.

The local authority and the ICO challenged that decision. The Upper Tribunal (Judge Jacobs) has agreed with them. He found the dissenting opinion of the First-Tier Tribunal member to have been the more sophisticated (as opposed to the overly generalised analysis of the majority) and ultimately correct. The Youth Councillors’ names were correctly withheld.

In his analysis of the First Data Protection Principle, Judge Jacobs was not much bothered by whether fairness or condition 6(1) (the relevant Schedule 2 condition) should be considered first: “the latter is but a specific instance of the former”.

Judge Jacobs found that there was no sufficient interest in the disclosure of the names of the Youth Councillors. He also rejected the argument that, by putting their names on the relevant Facebook page, the data subjects had implicitly consented to public disclosure of their identities in response to such a FOIA request.

Judge Jacobs stopped short, however, of finding that the personal data of minors should never be disclosed under FOIA, i.e. that the (privacy) interests of children would always take precedence over transparency. Maturity and autonomy matter more than mere age in this context, and sometimes (as here) minors are afforded substantial scope to make their own decisions.

Morley is an important case on the intersection between children’s personal data and transparency, particularly in the social media context, but – as Judge Jacobs himself observed – “it is by no means the last word on the subject”.

There were 11KBW appearances by Joseph Barrett (for the local authority) and Heather Emmerson (for the ICO).

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin

New from the Upper Tribunal: DWP work programmes, personal data. And security service algebra.

July 23rd, 2014 by Robin Hopkins

The Upper Tribunal has handed down a number of FOIA decisions in recent days. I refrain from comment or analysis, given my involvement in the cases (hopefully someone else from the Panopticon fold will oblige before long), but I post the judgments here for those who wish to read for themselves.

In DWP v IC and Zola [2014] UKUT 0334 (AAC), the Upper Tribunal dismissed the DWP’s appeal against this First-Tier Tribunal decision. The disputed information is a list of the identities of companies, charities and other organisations who host placements through the DWP’s work programmes for job seekers. Zola determination 21.07.14

In Farrand v IC and London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority [2014] UKUT 0310 (AAC), the Upper Tribunal dismissed an appeal concerning a report into a fire in a London flat, on the grounds that the requested information was the occupant’s personal data and no condition from Schedule 2 to the DPA was met. The decision discusses Common Services Agency and identification, legitimate interests, necessity and fairness. Farrand UT

Third, in Home Office v IC and Cobain (GIA/1722/2013), the Upper Tribunal has issued an interim decision allowing the appeal. This case concerns this problem: x + y = z, where z is a publicly known number, x is non-exempt information but y is exempt information (in this case, on section 23 grounds – security service information). Normally, the requester is entitled to non-exempt information, but here the automatic effect of disclosure would be to reveal the exempt information. What to do about this? As I say, an interim decision which I don’t analyse here. Have a go at the security service algebra yourself.

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin

Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe. Learn more.

July 3rd, 2014 by Robin Hopkins

This is the message that now regularly greets those using Google to search for information on named individuals. It relates, of course, to the CJEU’s troublesome Google Spain judgment of 13 May 2014.

I certainly wish to learn more.

So I take Google up on its educational offer and click through to its FAQ page, where the folks at Google tell me inter alia that “Since this ruling was published on 13 May 2014, we’ve been working around the clock to comply. This is a complicated process because we need to assess each individual request and balance the rights of the individual to control his or her personal data with the public’s right to know and distribute information”.

The same page also leads me to the form on which I can ask Google to remove from its search results certain URLs about me. I need to fill in gaps like this: “This URL is about me because… This page should not be included as a search result because…” 

This is indeed helpful in terms of process, but I want to understand more about the substance of decision-making. How does (and/or should) Google determine whether or not to accede to my request? Perhaps understandably (as Google remarks, this is a complicated business on which the dust is yet to settle), Google doesn’t tell me much about that just yet.

So I look to the obvious source – the CJEU’s judgment itself – for guidance. Here I learn that I can in principle ask that “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” information about me not be returned through a Google search. I also get some broad – and quite startling – rules of thumb, for example at paragraph 81, which tells me this:

“In the light of the potential seriousness of that interference, it is clear that it cannot be justified by merely the economic interest which the operator of such an engine has in that processing. However, inasmuch as the removal of links from the list of results could, depending on the information at issue, have effects upon the legitimate interest of internet users potentially interested in having access to that information, in situations such as that at issue in the main proceedings a fair balance should be sought in particular between that interest and the data subject’s fundamental rights under Articles 7 and 8 of the Charter. Whilst it is true that the data subject’s rights protected by those articles also override, as a general rule, that interest of internet users, that balance may however depend, in specific cases, on the nature of the information in question and its sensitivity for the data subject’s private life and on the interest of the public in having that information, an interest which may vary, in particular, according to the role played by the data subject in public life.”

So it seems that, in general (and subject to the sensitivity of the information and my prominence in public life), my privacy rights trump Google’s economic rights and other people’s rights to find information about me in this way. So the CJEU has provided some firm steers on points of principle.

But still I wish to learn more about how these principles will play out in practice. Media reports in recent weeks have told us about the volume of ‘right to be forgotten’ requests received by Google.

The picture this week has moved on from volumes to particulars. In the past few days, we have begun to learn how Google’s decisions filter back to journalists responsible for the content on some of the URLs which objectors pasted into the forms they sent to Google. We learn that journalists and media organisations, for example, are now being sent messages like this:

“Notice of removal from Google Search: we regret to inform you that we are no longer able to show the following pages from your website in response to certain searches on European versions of Google.”

Unsurprisingly, some of those journalists find this puzzling and/or objectionable. Concerns have been ventilated in the last day or two, most notably by the BBC’s Robert Peston (who feels that, through teething problems with the new procedures, he has been ‘cast into oblivion’) and The Guardian’s James Ball (who neatly illustrates some of the oddities of the new regime). See also The Washington Post’s roundup of UK media coverage.

That coverage suggests that the Google Spain ruling – which made no overt mention of free expression rights under Article 10 ECHR – has started to bite into the media’s freedom. The Guardian’s Chris Moran, however, has today posted an invaluable piece clarifying some misconceptions about the right to be forgotten. Academic commentators such as Paul Bernal have also offered shrewd insights into the fallout from Google Spain.

So, by following the trail from Google’s pithy new message, I am able to learn a fair amount about the tenor of this post-Google Spain world.

Inevitably, however, given my line of work, I am interested in the harder edges of enforcement and litigation: in particular, if someone objects to the outcome of a ‘please forget me’ request to Google, what exactly can they do about it?

On such questions, it is too early to tell. Google says on its FAQ page that “we look forward to working closely with data protection authorities and others over the coming months as we refine our approach”. For its part, the ICO tells us that it and its EU counterparts are working hard on figuring this out. Its newsletter from today says for example that:

“The ICO and its European counterparts on the Article 29 Working Party are working on guidelines to help data protection authorities respond to complaints about the removal of personal information from search engine results… The recommendations aim to ensure a consistent approach by European data protection authorities in response to complaints when takedown requests are refused by the search engine provider.”

So for the moment, there remain lots of unanswered questions. For example, the tone of the CJEU’s judgment is that DPA rights will generally defeat economic rights and the public’s information rights. But what about a contest between two individuals’ DPA rights?

Suppose, for example, that I am an investigative journalist with substantial reputational and career investment in articles about a particular individual who then persuades Google to ensure that my articles do not surface in EU Google searches for his name? Those articles also contain my name, work and opinions, i.e. they also contain my personal data. In acceding to the ‘please forget me’ request without seeking my input, could Google be said to have processed my personal data unfairly, whittling away my online personal and professional output (at least to the extent that the relevant EU Google searches are curtailed)? Could this be said to cause me damage or distress? If so, can I plausibly issue a notice under s. 10 of the DPA, seek damages under s. 13, or ask the ICO to take enforcement action under s. 40?

The same questions could arise, for example, if my personal backstory is heavily entwined with that of another person who persuades Google to remove from its EU search results articles discussing both of us – that may be beneficial for the requester, but detrimental to me in terms of the adequacy of personal data about me which Google makes available to the interested searcher.

So: some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe, and I do indeed wish to learn more. But I will have to wait.

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin

Section 13 DPA in the High Court: nominal damage plus four-figure distress award

June 13th, 2014 by Robin Hopkins

Given the paucity of case law, it is notoriously difficult to estimate likely awards of compensation under section 13 of the Data Protection Act 1998 for breaches of that Act. It is also very difficult to assess any trends in compensation awards over time.

AB v MoJ [2014] EWHC 1847 (QB) is the Courts’ (Mr Justice Jeremy Baker) latest consideration of compensation under the DPA. The factual background involves protracted correspondence involving numerous subject access requests. Ultimately, it was held that the Defendant failed to provide certain documents to which the Claimant was entitled under section 7 of the DPA within the time frames set out under that section.

Personal data?

There was a dispute as to whether one particular document contained the Claimant’s ‘personal data’. Baker J noted the arguments from Common Services Agency, and he is not the first to observe (at his paragraph 50) that it is sometimes not a ‘straightforward issue’ to determine whether or not information comes within the statutory definition of personal data. Ultimately, he considered that the disputed document did not come within that definition: it “is in wholly neutral terms, and is indeed merely a conduit for the provision of information contained in the letters which it enclosed which certainly did contain the claimant’s personal data”.

Nonetheless, the DPA had been breached in virtue of the delays in the provision of other information to which the Claimant was entitled under section 7. What compensation should he be awarded?

Damage under section 13(1) DPA

Baker J was satisfied, having considered In Halliday v Creation Consumer Finance Limited [2013] EWCA Civ 333, [2013] 2 Info LR 85 (where the same point was conceded), that nominal damage sufficed as ‘damage’ for section 13(1) purposes: “In this regard the word “damage” in this sub-section is not qualified in any way, such that to my mind provided that there has, as in this case, been some relevant loss, then an individual who has also suffered relevant distress is entitled to an award of compensation in respect of it”.

Here the Court was satisfied that nominal damages should be awarded. The Claimant had spent a lot of time pursuing his requests, albeit that much of that time also involved pursuing requests on clients’ behalves, and albeit that no actual loss had been quantified:

“Essentially the claimant is a professional man who, it is apparent from his witness statement, has expended a considerable amount of time and expense in the pursuit of the disclosure of his and others’ data from various Government Departments and other public bodies, including the disclosed and withheld material from the defendant. Having said that, the claimant has not sought to quantify his time and expense, nor has he allocated it between the various requests on his own and others’ behalves. In these circumstances, although I am satisfied that he has suffered damage in accordance with s.13(1) of the DPA 1998, I consider that this is a case in which an award of nominal damages is appropriate under this head, which will be in the conventional sum of £1.00.”

Distress under section 13(2) DPA

That finding opened the door to an award for distress. The Court found that distress had been suffered, although it was difficult to disentangle his distress attributable to the breaches of the DPA from his distress as to the other surrounding circumstances: “doing the best I am able to on the evidence before me I consider that any award of compensation for distress caused as a result of the relevant delays in this case, should be in the sum of £2,250.00”.

Until this week, Halliday was the Courts’ last reported (on Panopticon at any rate) award of compensation under section 13 DPA. That was 14 months ago. In AB, the Court awarded precisely triple that sum for distress.

For a further (and quicker-off-the-mark) discussion of AB, see this post on Jon Baines’ blog, Information Rights and Wrongs.

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin

Global Witness and the journalism exemption: ICO to have the first go?

April 30th, 2014 by Robin Hopkins

Panopticon has previously reported on the novel and important data protection case Steinmetz and Others v Global Witness [2014] EWHC 1186 (Ch). The High Court (Henderson J) has now given a judgment on a procedural point which will set the shape for this litigation.

The broad background to the case has been set out in Jason Coppel QC’s previous post – see here. In a nutshell, Global Witness is an NGO which reports and campaigns on natural resource related corruption around the world. Global Witness is one of a number of organisations which has recently reported on allegations that a particular company, BSG Resources Ltd (“BSGR”), secured a major mining concession in Guinea through corrupt means. Global Witness is now facing claims brought under the Data Protection Act 1998 by a number of individuals who are all in some way connected with BSGR. The claims include a subject access claim brought under s. 7; a claim under s. 10 requiring Global Witness to cease processing data in connection with the claimants and BSGR; a claim for rectification under s. 14 and a claim for compensation under s. 13.

For its part, Global Witness relies on the ‘journalism’ exemption under s. 32 of the DPA, which applies to “processing… undertaken with a view to the publication by any person of any journalistic, literary or artistic material”. Global Witness says it is exempt from the provisions of the DPA on which the claimants rely.

An unusual feature of the s. 32 exemption is that it provides, at subsections (4) and (5), for a mandatory stay mechanism which is designed in essence to enable the ICO to assume an important adjudicative role in the proceedings (my emphasis):

(4) Where at any time (“the relevant time”) in any proceedings against a data controller under section 7(9), 10(4), 12(8) or 14 or by virtue of section 13 the data controller claims, or it appears to the court, that any personal data to which the proceedings relate are being processed

(a) only for the special purposes, and

(b) with a view to the publication by any person of any journalistic, literary or artistic material which, at the time twenty-four hours immediately before the relevant time, had not previously been published by the data controller, the court shall stay the proceedings until either of the conditions in subsection (5) is met.

(5) Those conditions are—

(a) that a determination of the Commissioner under section 45 with respect to the data in question takes effect, or

(b) in a case where the proceedings were stayed on the making of a claim, that the claim is withdrawn.

So: if the conditions in s. 32(4) are met, then the court must stay proceedings until either the claim is withdrawn or the ICO has issued a determination under section 45. S. 45 effectively requires the ICO to adjudicate upon the application of the journalism/’special purposes’ exemption to the facts of the particular case. Any determination made under s. 45 can be appealed to the Tribunal: see s. 48(4), which confers a right of appeal on the data controller.

Global Witness has invoked s. 32(4) in its defence and has since applied to the Court for a stay under that provision. The claimants disagree that a stay should be granted. They say Global Witness’ reliance on section 32 is misconceived and have made a cross-application to have the s. 32 defence struck out and for summary judgment in the alternative.

The question for Henderson J was whether those rival applications should be heard together (the claimant’s case), or whether Global Witness’ application for a stay should be determined first (Global Witness’ case). Henderson J has agreed with Global Witness on this point. In reaching the view that the stay application should be heard first, it appears that Henderson J had in mind arguments to the effect that requiring the two applications to be heard together would itself risk pre-empting Global Witness’ stay application and may also result in a more cumbersome and costly process (see in particular paragraphs 16-24). Henderson J went on to make the following observation as to the effect of s. 32(4): :

“Subject to argument about the precise nature of a claim sufficient to trigger section 32, Parliament has, in my view, pretty clearly taken the line that issues of this kind should be determined in the first instance by the Commissioner, and any proceedings brought in court should be stayed until that has been done” (paragraph 21).

The stay application will now be heard at the end of June. The matter will then either go off to the ICO or, if the stay application fails, the claimants’ summary judgment/strike-out applications will be considered. The stay application will therefore determine the immediate trajectory of this particular litigation. Whilst the Court declined to order indemnity costs against the claimants, it did award Global Witness close to 100% of its costs.

Anya Proops acts for Global Witness.

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin

FOIA disclosures: ‘motive blindness’ and risks to mental health

February 26th, 2014 by Robin Hopkins

Some FOIA ‘mantras’ frustrate requesters, such as judging matters as at the time of the request/refusal, regardless of subsequent events. Others tend to frustrate public authorities, such as ‘motive blindness’. A recent Tribunal discusses and illustrates both principles – in the context of the distress (including a danger to mental health) likely to arise from disclosure.

The background is that a certain pupil referral unit (PRU) in County Durham was the subject of complaints; 13 of its 60 staff had been suspended. An independent investigation team reported in November 2012. Later in that same month, the Council received a FOIA request for a copy of the investigators’ report. At that time, disciplinary proceedings were pending against each of the suspended members of staff. Those proceedings were to be conducted on a confidetial basis.

The Council refused the request, relying on section 31 (prejudice to conduct of function for purpose of ascertaining any improper conduct), section 40 (personal data) and 38 (health and safety). The ICO agreed, and so has the Tribunal, dismissing the requester’s appeal in Hepple v IC and Durham County Council (EA/2013/0168).

The Tribunal confirmed that, notwithstanding the appellant’s practical arguments to the contrary, it had to judge matters as they stood at the time of the Council’s refusal of the request (paras 4-7).

Section 31 was engaged: “We are satisfied, having read the Report in full, that disclosure in full would have given rise to a perception of unfairness and pre-judgement that would have prejudiced the disciplinary proceedings. Those deciding the complaint might have avoided being prejudiced but the perception of a disinterested third party would have been that the staff member’s right to a fair hearing had been undermined, particularly if publication had attracted media comment” (para 14). The public interest favoured maintaining the exemption.

Reliance on section 40(2) was upheld: the unwarranted interference to the data subjects prevailed over public interest arguments. The comparative balance may have shifted slightly since the date of the refusal, but that was not the relevant time for the purposes of the appeal.

Reliance on section 38 was also upheld. This exemption for health and safety (here, danger to mental health) seldom surfaces in FOIA caselaw. Here it was upheld, largely because the requester himself had sent certain text messages (for which he was later apologetic) to some of the individuals involved. The Tribunal “drew the clear impression that the texts had been transmitted with the purpose of menacing those whose addresses the Appellant had acquired” (para 37).

Those text messages were sent after the refusal of the request, but the Tribunal was satisfied that they evidenced a state of mind likely to have existed at the relevant time. As to ‘motive blindness’, the Tribunal said that “assessing an information request on this “motive blind” basis ought not to prevent us from considering the potential risk to safety posed by the requester him/herself”.

‘Motive blindness’ may be something of a mantra in FOIA cases, but – as with vexatious request cases – it is a principle which should be applied with appropriate nuance.

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin

Personal data and fitness to practice investigations – Tribunal overturns ‘neither confirm nor deny’ position

January 17th, 2014 by Robin Hopkins

When an identifiable individual has been the subject of a formal complaint about their competence or conduct, that fact constitutes their personal data. In terms of privacy/publicity decisions, such situations are often approached in this way: where the complaint is well founded or at least merits serious consideration, publication is warranted, but otherwise confidentiality is maintained, lest unjustified aspersions be cast against that person.

In that respect, the process outlined by the Tribunal in Foster v IC (EA/2013/0176) – which concerned a complaint to the Nursing & Midwifery Council – is typical:

“The complaints procedure administered by the NMC has two stages. The first stage is designed to determine whether or not the matter should be referred to the NMC’s Fitness to Practice Panel. If it is, then the Panel will meet in public and its decision will be made publicly available. But if the complaint does not proceed beyond the first stage, (either because a decision is made not to investigate or because the NMC’s Investigating Committee Panel concludes that the complaint does not justify a reference to the Fitness to Practice Panel), then the process remains confidential. The rationale appears to be that an individual’s professional reputation should not be undermined by the publication of allegations that are found not to have sufficient merit to justify being referred to the Fitness to Practice Panel”.

The Appellant, whose son died following his participation in a drug trial, considered that the NMC investigation in this case – which did not pass the first stage – may have been inadequate. She asked for information about its investigation into her complaint about a named practitioner.

The NMC adopted a ‘neither confirm nor deny’ position under section 40(5), i.e. it considered that to say whether or not it held information on a complaint about this individual would be to tell the world at large whether or not that person had been the subject of a professional complaint of this description. The ICO agreed, but the Tribunal overturned that decision, ordering the NMC to confirm or deny whether it held the requested information.

In reaching that view, the Tribunal – while not passing judgment on the merits of the complaint or the NMC’s investigation – considered the criticisms that had been made:

“If it were to be the case that any member of the care team had realised the error earlier, but had not raised the alarm until after its very sad consequences had become clear, then there would seem to us to be strength in the Appellant’s argument that the evidential basis for the decision of the NMC’s Investigating Committee Panel required investigation”.

In those circumstances, the Tribunal thought the fairness balance favoured confirming or denying whether the requested information was held:

“In reaching that conclusion we reject the Information Commissioner’s argument that it is always unfair, and therefore in breach of the Data Protection Principles, to make a statement that discloses the existence of a complaint of professional misconduct against an individual, where there has been no finding of wrongdoing or malpractice. That would create an inflexible test which prevented all relevant circumstances being taken into account. Nor do we accept the Information Commissioner’s argument that the limited degree of disclosure involved in a “confirm or deny” response would constitute unwarranted interference into X’s privacy, without satisfying a legitimate public interest in disclosure”.

Public authorities who routinely adopt a default ‘neither confirm nor deny stance’ of the type outlined at the start of this post will wish to note that, at least in some circumstances, that approach can be called into question.

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin