Everyone knows the concept of ambulance chasers – personal injury lawyers who seek out victims of accidents or negligence to help/persuade the latter to make compensation claims. With today’s judgment in the Court of Appeal in the case of Vidal-Hall & Ors v Google  EWCA Civ 311 one wonders if we will start to see data protection ambulance chasers, arriving at the scene of serious “data breaches” with their business cards.
This is because the Court has made a definitive ruling on the issue, discussed several times previously on this blog, of whether compensation can be claimed under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) in circumstances where a data subject has suffered distress but no tangible, pecuniary damage. Section 13 of the DPA provides that
(1)An individual who suffers damage by reason of any contravention by a data controller of any of the requirements of this Act is entitled to compensation from the data controller for that damage.
(2)An individual who suffers distress by reason of any contravention by a data controller of any of the requirements of this Act is entitled to compensation from the data controller for that distress if—
(a)the individual also suffers damage by reason of the contravention
This differs from the wording of the European Data Protection Directive 95/46/ec, which, at Article 23(1) says
Member States shall provide that any person who has suffered damage as a result of an unlawful processing operation or of any act incompatible with the national provisions adopted pursuant to this Directive is entitled to receive compensation from the controller for the damage suffered
It can be seen that, in the domestic statutory scheme “distress” is distinct from “damage”, but in the Directive, there is just a single category of “damage”. The position until relatively recently, following Johnson v Medical Defence Union  EWCA Civ 262, had been that it meant pecuniary damage, and this in turn meant, as Buxton LJ said in that case, that “section 13 distress damages are only available if damage in the sense of pecuniary loss has been suffered”. So, absent pecuniary damage, no compensation for distress was available (except in certain specific circumstances involving processing of personal data for journalistic, literary or artistic purposes). But, this, said Lord Dyson and Lady Justice Sharp, in a joint judgment, was wrong, and, in any case, they were not bound by Johnson because the relevant remarks in that case were in fact obiter. In fact, they said, section 13(2) DPA was incompatible with Article 23 of the Directive:
What is required in order to make section 13(2) compatible with EU law is the disapplication of section 13(2), no more and no less. The consequence of this would be that compensation would be recoverable under section 13(1) for any damage suffered as a result of a contravention by a data controller of any of the requirements of the DPA
As Christopher Knight says, in a characteristically fine and exuberant piece on the Panopticon blog, “And thus, section 13(2) was no more”.
And this means a few things. It certainly means that it will be much easier for an aggrieved data subject to bring a claim for compensation against a data controller which has contravened its obligations under the DPA in circumstances where there is little, or no, tangible or pecuniary damage, but only distress. It also means that we may well start to see the rise of data protection ambulance chasers – the DPA may not give rise to massive settlements, but it is a relatively easy claim to make – a contravention is often effectively a matter of fact, or is found to be such by the Information Commissioner, or is conceded/admitted by the data controller – and there is the prospect of group litigation (in 2013 Islington Council settled claims brought jointly by fourteen claimants following disclosure of their personal data to unauthorised third parties – the settlement totalled £43,000).
I mentioned in that last paragraph that data controller sometimes concede or admit to contraventions of their obligations under the DPA. Indeed, they are expected to by the Information Commissioner, and the draft European General Data Protection Regulation proposes to make it mandatory to do so, and to inform data subjects. And this is where I wonder if we might see another effect of the Vidal-Hall case – if data controller know that by owning up to contraventions they may be exposing themselves to multiple legal claims for distress compensation, they (or their shareholders, or insurers) may start to question why they should do this. Breach notification may be seen as even more of a risky exercise than it is now.
There are other interesting aspects to the Vidal-Hall case – misuse of private information is, indeed, a tort, allowing service of the claims against Google outside jurisdiction, and there are profound issues regarding the definition of personal data which are undecided and, if they go to trial, will be extremely important – but the disapplying of section 13(2) DPA looks likely to have profound effects for data controllers, for data subjects, for lawyers and for the landscape of data protection litigation in this country.
The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.