Unintended data protection consequences of Defamation Act and ICO proposals?

Might changes to defamation law, and to the Information Commissioner’s practices, lead to an increase in court claims about accuracy of personal data?

A statement is not defamatory unless its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant

This is the bold subsection (1) to section 1 of the Defamation Act 2013, which was commenced in England and Wales on 1 January 2014. This – in part the culmination of a strong campaign – is a potentially significant change to domestic libel law, meaning that (in the words of the explanatory notes to the Act)

the bar [is raised] for bringing a claim so that only cases involving serious harm to the claimant’s reputation can be brought

But often where a bar is raised in one place, a gap will be found in another. I wonder if, along with another development -namely, the Information Commissioner’s proposals to change its approach to regulation of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) – it might lead to an increase in DPA claims.

11KBW’s Robin Hopkins wrote an important article last year, whose title helpfully summarises its argument: The Data Protection Act in defamation cases: increasingly relevant, potentially primary? In it, he identified a possible trend, citing two cases in particular as illustration – The Law Society and others v Rick Kordowski [2011] EWHC 3185 (QB) and Desmond v Foreman, & Ors [2012] EWHC 1900 (QB), of

The Data Protection Act 1998…increasingly being deployed as part of a claimant’s arsenal in defamation claims […] in some circumstances, the DPA may appropriately play the lead role rather than a supporting one in a complaint about unjustifiable and damaging communications about individuals

There are a number of potential claims which an aggrieved individual can make using the DPA. For our purposes here, though, the relevant provisions are those at section 14, dealing with inaccuracy

If a court is satisfied on the application of a data subject that personal data of which the applicant is the subject are inaccurate, the court may order the data controller to rectify, block, erase or destroy those data and any other personal data in respect of which he is the data controller and which contain an expression of opinion which appears to the court to be based on the inaccurate data

Clearly, inaccuracy – normally in the form of an untruth – is an important part of a defamation claim. If, now, those claims formerly made in defamation which were not worth the wick, let alone the candle are (statutorily) barred by virtue of section 1 of the Defamation Act 2013, will persistent claimants seek another route? Inaccuracy of personal data is a prima facie contravention of the fourth data protection principle in Schedule One of the DPA, and section 14 is a legitimate and specific legal route by which a person may have that inaccuracy corrected.

It should be noted, though, that the court does retain discretion (n.b use of “may” in section 14) as to whether to order rectification etc. An alternative route has traditionally been, of course, by means of making a request for assessment, under section 42 of the DPA, to the Information Commissioner (IC), as to whether processing of one’s personal data has been or is being carried out in compliance with the DPA. Upon receipt of a valid request of this type, the IC is required (“shall make…”) to make an assessment (although he retains discretion as to what is an appropriate manner for it to be made). I say “traditionally” because, as David Erdos argued in a guest post on this blog recently, the IC, in a consultation on a future approach to dealing with DPA complaints and concerns

proposes to decide on its own account whether or not to assess the merits of a concern validly sent to it for assessment under the Data Protection framework

but, as David, notes, this proposal does not appear to be in accordance with the IC’s legal obligation to make an assessment in relevant circumstances.

Nonetheless, and to the extent that such a proposal (or a tweaking of it) might be held to be lawful, it certainly seems to signal a desire on the IC’s part to  (in Tim Turner’s words)

start ignoring more individual complaints, and concentrate on what it considers to be strategic priorities

If that is so, then might complainants who wish to challenge the accuracy of their personal data, more readily look to bring section 14 claims against the data controller? Might the IC be shifting its burden not only on to data controllers themselves, but also on to the already overloaded justice system?

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Filed under Data Protection, defamation, Information Commissioner

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