Category Archives: damages

ICO secures court-awarded compensation

ICO often say they can’t award compensation, but what they can do is – in criminal cases – make an application for the court to make an award (separate to any fines or costs). But as far as I know, until this case last week, they’d never done so:

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Filed under crime, damages, Data Protection, Data Protection Act 2018, Information Commissioner

GDPR compensation claims – not all infringements are alike

A very interesting piece by my Mishcon de Reya colleague Adam Rose, distinguishing between different types of GDPR infringement, and looking at which types the courts might consider justify compensation/damages awards (hint: by no means all).

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Filed under damages, Data Protection, GDPR

A royal letter before claim

Media reports suggest a USB stick from Heathrow Airport containing security information, including details of measures used to protect the Queen has been found on a street

Letter before small claims court claim

Mrs E Windsor
Buckingham Palace

The Chap in Charge of Security
Heathrow Airport
The Compass Centre,
Nelson Road,

Dear Subject*

Reference: cock-up with one’s personal data

As it has not been possible to resolve this matter amicably, and it is apparent that court action may be necessary, We write in compliance with the Practice Direction on Pre-Action Conduct (we considered treason charges, but One wishes to be tolerant).

We are informed that Heathrow Airport says it has launched an internal investigation after a USB stick containing security information was reportedly found on the street. The beastly communist Sunday Mirror reported that the USB stick had 76 folders with maps, videos and documents, including details of measures used to protect Us. A subject found it in west London and handed it into the paper.

From you We are claiming fifty guineas for distress.

We have calculated this sum on the basis that section 13(1) of our Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) provides that one can grab a bit of extra money for the races by showing that one has suffered damage cos of a cock-up with one’s personal data. When We agreed the old DPA by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in the then Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, We thought one couldn’t grab said moolah merely if one was a bit peeved, but thought one had to have suffered tangible harm first. However, some of Our ghastly judges [who the bleeding hell do they work for?] decided a while ago, on the basis of a law passed by one’s distant relations that they would simply disapply Our section 13(2) [arses]. Given that, We might as well chuck Our Crown into the ring.

Listed below are the documents on which We intend to rely in Our claim against you:

Beastly seditious rag
Jolly old skit from the chaps at 11 Kings [WHAT?] Bench Walk
Treason Act 1351 (no harm in a quick reminder eh?)

We can confirm that We would be agreeable to mediation and would consider any other system of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) in order to avoid the need for this matter to be resolved by Our (n.b. “Our”) courts.

We would invite you to put forward any proposals in this regard.

In closing, We would draw your attention to paragraphs 15 and 16 of the Practice Direction which [should give Our courts the power to imprison grotty oiks] gives courts powers to impose sanctions on the parties if they fail to comply with the direction including failing to respond to this letter before claim.

We look forward to hearing from you within the next 28 days.

Should We not receive a response to my letter within this time frame then We anticipate that court action will be commenced with no further reference to you [where’s Albert Pierrepoint when you need him?]

Yours faithfully,


*Not “data subject”, naturally. We are the data subject.

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.

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Filed under 7th principle, damages, Data Protection, data security, not-entirely-serious

Data Protection distress compensation for CCTV intrusion

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) recently (2 February) successfully prosecuted a business owner for operating CCTV without an appropriate notification under section 18 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), announcing:

Businesses could face fines for ignoring CCTV data protection law

But a recent case in the Scottish Sheriff Court shows that CCTV and data protection can also have relevance in private law civil proceedings. In Woolley against Akbar [2017] ScotsSC 7 the husband and wife pursuers (equivalent to claimants in England and Wales) successfully brought a claim for compensation for distress caused by the defender’s (defendant in England and Wales) use of CCTV cameras which were continuously recording video and audio, and which were deliberately set to cover the pursuers’ private property (their garden area and the front of their home). Compensation was assessed at £8634 for each of the pursuers (so £17268 in total) with costs to be assessed at a later date.

Two things are of particular interest to data protection fans: firstly, the willingness of the court to rule unequivocally that CCTV operated in non-compliance with the DPA Schedule One principles was unlawful; and secondly, the award of compensation despite the absence of physical damage.

The facts were that Mr and Mrs Woolley own and occupy the upper storey of a dwelling place, while Mrs Akbar owns and operates the lower storey as a guest house, managed by her husband Mr Akram. In 2013 the relationship between the parties broke down. Although both parties have installed CCTV systems, the pursuers’ system only monitors their own property, but this was not the case with the defender’s:

any precautions to ensure that coverage of the pursuers’ property was minimised or avoided. The cameras to the front of the house record every person approaching the pursuers’ home. The cameras to the rear were set deliberately to record footage of the pursuers’ private garden area. There was no legitimate reason for the nature and extent of such video coverage. The nature and extent of the camera coverage were obvious to the pursuers, as they could see where the cameras were pointed. The coverage was highly intrusive…the defender also made audio recordings of the area around the pursuers’ property…they demonstrated an ability to pick up conversations well beyond the pursuers’ premises. There are four audio boxes. The rear audio boxes are capable of picking up private conversations in the pursuers’ rear garden. Mr Akram, on one occasion, taunted the pursuers about his ability to listen to them as the pursuers conversed in their garden. The defender and Mr Akram were aware of this at all times, and made no effort to minimise or avoid the said audio recording. The nature of the coverage was obvious to the pursuers. Two audio boxes were installed immediately below front bedroom windows. The pursuers feared that conversations inside their home could also be monitored. The said coverage was highly intrusive.

Although, after the intervention of the ICO, the defender realigned the camera at the rear of the property, Sheriff Ross held that the coverage “remains intrusive”. Fundamentally, the sheriff held that the CCTV use was: unfair (in breach of the first data protection principle); excessive in terms of the amount of data captured (in breach of the third data protection principle); and retained for too long (in breach of the fifth data protection principle).

The sheriff noted that, by section 13(2) of the DPA, compensation for distress can only be awarded if the pursuer has suffered “damage”, which was not the case here. However, the sheriff further correctly noted, and was no doubt taken to, the decision of the Court of Appeal in Vidal-Hall & Ors v Google [2015] EWCA Civ 311 in which the court struck down section 13(2) as being incompatible with the UK’s obligations under the European data protection directive and the Charter of Fundamental Rights (my take on Vidal Hall is here). Accordingly, “pure” distress compensation was available.

Although the facts here show a pretty egregious breach of DPA, it is good to see a court understanding and assessing the issues so well, no doubt assisted in doing so by Paul Motion, of BTO Solicitors, who appeared for the pursuers.

One niggle I do have is about the role of the ICO in all this: they were clearly apprised of the situation, and could surely have taken enforcement action to require the stopping of the CCTV (although admittedly ICO cannot make an award of compensation). It’s not clear to me why they didn’t.

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.


Filed under damages, Data Protection, Information Commissioner

Vidal-Hall v Google, and the rise of data protection ambulance-chasing

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 [2015] 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 [2007] 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.


Filed under Breach Notification, damages, Data Protection, Directive 95/46/EC, GDPR, Information Commissioner

Data Protection Act non-pecuniary damages in the County Court

The Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) is, as its regulator the Information Commissioner (IC) concedes, “complex and, in places, hard to understand”. Moreover, it has been observed that 

there is…little case law…most damages claims under the DPA go to the County Court, where unless you were in the case it is hard to know that it happened or get hold of a judgment

To which one would add that, as most damages claims go no further than the County Court those cases we do hear about don’t set precedent anyway.

However, thanks to the website LegalBeagles we do now have another judgment which deals with the DPA, and which was handed down in June this year in the County Court at Taunton. In the judgment (.pdf, 12MB), in rather dense prose, Deputy District Judge Stockdale ruled on a money claim against Lloyds Bank for unfair bank charges (the primary claim) and a claim for damages under section 13 of the DPA. Holding that the specific bank charges between 2007 and 2009, for unauthorised overdraft facilities, were indeed unfair (for reasons I am rather ill-equipped to explore), the Judge went on to hold that the referral of a default to credit reference agencies was in breach of the first data protection principle (Schedule One, DPA) which obliged the bank to process the claimant’s personal data fairly (and lawfully). This was because, by reference to the then IC Guidance “Filing of defaults with credit reference agencies”, the relationship between the lender and the individual had not broken down. The guidance said

The term ‘default’, when recorded on a credit reference file should be used to refer to a situation when the lender in a standard business relationship with the individual decides that the relationship has broken down

In this case, as the claimant and the bank, at the time the latter registered the default, had entered into a repayment arrangement (which the claimant was keeping to), it could not be said that the relationship had broken down.

An interesting point about this judgment is that the claimant’s case was bolstered by the fact he could point to a prior assessment opinion by the IC. He had complained about the bank’s actions to the IC, who had determined (in line – although this is unsaid in the judgment – with his duties under section 42 DPA to assess processing) that it was unlikely that the bank had complied with its DPA obligation. This clearly carried weight for the judge (as did the Guidance).

Another interesting point is that, in assessing the remedy for the contravention, the judge followed the (compelling) dicta of Tugendhat J in Vidal -Hall & Ors v Google Inc [2014] EWHC 13 (QB) and awarded compensation  for what was non-pecuniary damage of £1000, in recognition of the trouble to which the claimant had been put in pursuing the matter and bringing the claim. The claimant was also successful in an application under section 14(1) DPA for erasure/destruction of the default on his credit reference files.

Vidal-Hall has not yet come to trial. If, when it does, Tugendhat J’s “preliminary view” that “damage in s.13 does include non-pecuniary damage” is upheld, it could lead to a rush of similar claims being made.

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Filed under damages, Data Protection, Information Commissioner

Nominal damages give rise to distress compensation under the Data Protection Act – AB v Ministry of Justice

An award of nominal DPA damages in the High Court.

Whether, or in what circumstances, compensation may be awarded to a claimant who shows a contravention by a data controller of any of the requirements of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), is a much-debated issue. It is also, occasionally, litigated. One key aspect is when compensation for distress might be awarded.

Section 13 of the DPA provides, so far as is relevant here, 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

The general interpretation of this has been that compensation for distress, in the absence of pecuniary damage, is not available. The leading case on this is Johnson v The Medical Defence Union Ltd (2) [2006] EWHC 321 and on appeal Johnson v Medical Defence Union [2007] EWCA Civ 262, with Buxton LJ saying in the latter

section 13 distress damages are only available if damage in the sense of pecuniary loss has been suffered

However in allowing an appeal in Murray v Big Pictures (UK) Ltd [2008] EWCA Civ 446, and directing that the case go to trial, the Court of Appeal was prepared to consider a different view

It seems to us to be at least arguable that the judge [in the first instance] has construed ‘damage’ too narrowly, having regard to the fact that the purpose of the Act was to enact the provisions of the relevant Directive

But that case was ultimately settled before trial, and the issue left undecided.

Clearly, the decision in Johnson is potentially controversial, especially in cases (of which Johnson was not one) where the UK’s obligations under the European Data Protection Directive, and data subjects’ associated rights under the European Convention on Human Rights and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, are taken into account. This much was recognised by Tugendhat J, in giving permisssion to the applicants in Vidal -Hall & Ors v Google Inc [2014] EWHC 13 (QB) to serve on Google Inc out of jurisdiction. He noted (¶83-104) academic statements on the issue, as well as the European Commission’s view that the UK DPA wrongly restricts “[t]he right to compensation for moral damage when personal information is used inappropriately”, and said

This is a controversial question of law in a developing area, and it is desirable that the facts should be found. It would therefore be the better course in the present case that I should not decide this question on this application.

I shall therefore not decide it. However, in case it is of any assistance in the future, my preliminary view of the question is that Mr Tomlinson’s submissions are to be preferred, and so that damage in s.13 does include non-pecuniary damage

This is a fascinating point, and detailed judicial consideration of it would be welcomed (it may also be at issue in the impending case of Steinmetz v Global Witness Ltd) but, in the meantime, a question exists as to whether nominal pecuniary damage opens the door to awards for distress. In Johnson, the cost of a £10.50 breakfast had opened the door, but this was actual (if minor) damage. Last year, the Court of Appeal avoided having to decide the issue when the defendant conceded the point in Halliday v Creation Consumer Finance Ltd (CCF) [2013] EWCA Civ 333 (about which I blogged last year). However, in a very recent judgment, AB v Ministry of Justice [2014] EWHC 1847 (QB), which takes some wading through, Mr Justice Baker does appear to have proceeded on the basis that nominal damages do give rise to distress compensation.

The case involves an (anonymous) partner in a firm of solicitors who, as a result of events involving the coroner following his wife’s tragic death, made a series of subject access requests (under the provisions of section 7 DPA). The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) did not, it seems, necessarily handle these well, nor in accordance with their obligations under the DPA, and when it came to remedying these contraventions (which consisted of delayed responses) the judge awarded nominal damages of £1.00, before moving on to award £2250 for distress caused by the delays.

What is not clear from the judgment is to what extent the judge considered the MoJ’s submission that compensation for distress was only available if an individual has also suffered damage. The answer may lie in the fact that, although he awarded nominal damages, the judge accepted that AB had suffered (actual) damage but had “not sought to quantify his time or expense”. Query, therefore, whether this is a case of purely nominal damage.

One hopes that Vidal-Hall and Global Witness give the occasions to determine these matters. One notes, however, the vigour with which both cases are being litigated by the parties: it may be some time before the issue is settled once and for all.


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Filed under damages, Data Protection, Directive 95/46/EC, human rights

Piles of cash for claiming against spammers? I’m not so sure

I am not a lawyer, but I’m pretty certain that most commercial litigation strategies will be along the lines of “don’t waste lots of money fighting a low-value case which sets no precedent”. And I know it is a feature of such litigation that some companies will not even bother defending such cases, calculating that doing so will cost the company much more, with no other gain.

With this in mind, one notes the recent case of Sky News producer Roddy Mansfield. His employer itself reported (in a piece with a sub-heading  “John Lewis is prosecuted…”, which is manifestly not the case – this was a civil matter) that

John Lewis has been ordered to pay damages for sending “spam” emails in a privacy ruling that could open the floodgates for harassed consumers.

Roddy Mansfield, who is a producer for Sky News, brought the case under EU legislation that prohibits businesses from sending marketing emails without consent

The case appears to have been brought under regulation 30 of The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (PECR). Those regulations, as the title suggests, give effect to the UK’s obligations under the snappily titled Directive 2002/58/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 12 July 2002 concerning the processing of personal data and the protection of privacy in the electronic communications sector. Regulation 30(1) of PECR provides that

A person who suffers damage by reason of any contravention of any of the requirements of these Regulations by any other person shall be entitled to bring proceedings for compensation from that other person for that damage

It appears that Mr Mansfield created an account on the John Lewis website, and omitted to “untick” a box which purported to convey his consent to John Lewis sending him marketing emails. It further appears that in the County Court Mr Mansfield successfully argued that the subsequent sending of such emails was in breach of regulation 22(2), which provides in relevant part that

a person shall neither transmit, nor instigate the transmission of, unsolicited communications for the purposes of direct marketing by means of electronic mail unless the recipient of the electronic mail has previously notified the sender that he consents for the time being to such communications being sent…

Assuming that this accurately reflects what happened, I think Mr Mansfield was probably correct to argue that John Lewis had breached the regulations: the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) guidance states that

Some organisations provide pre-ticked opt-in boxes, and rely on the user to untick it if they don’t want to consent. In effect, this is more like an opt-out box, as it assumes consent unless the user clicks the box. A pre-ticked box will not automatically be enough to demonstrate consent, as it will be harder to show that the presence of the tick represents a positive, informed choice by the user

For a detailed exposition of the PECR provisions in play, see Tim Turner’s excellent recent blog post on this same story.

I’ve used the word “appears” quite a bit in this post, because there are various unknowns in this story. One of the main missing pieces of information is the actual amount of damages awarded to Mr Mansfield. Unless (and it is not the case here) exemplary or aggravated damages are available, an award will only act as compensation. It has been said that

The central purpose of a civil law award of damages is to compensate the claimant for the damage, loss or injury he or she has suffered as a result of another’s acts or omissions, and to put the claimant in the same position as he or she would have been but for the injury, loss or damage, so far as this is possible

So I doubt very much whether the award to Mr Mansfield was anything other than a small sum (so the albeit tongue-in-cheek Register reference to a PILE OF CASH is very probably way off the mark) . I have asked him via his twitter account for details, but have had no reply as yet.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this story, though, is the extent to which it indicates the way the courts might interpret the relevant consent provisions of PECR. As this was a case in the County Court it sets no precedent, and, unless someone decides to pay for a transcript of the hearing we’re very unlikely to get any written judgment or law report, but the principles at stake are profound ones, concerning how electronic marketing communications can be lawfully sent, and about what “consent” means in this context.

The issue will not go away, and, although I suspect (referring back to my opening paragraph) that John Lewis chose not to appeal because the costs of doing so would have vastly outweighed the costs of settling the matter by paying the required damages, it would greatly benefit from some proper consideration by a higher court.

And another important aspect of the story is whether behaviours might change as a result. Maybe they have: I see that John Lewis, no doubt aware that others might take up the baton passed on by Mr Mansfield, have quietly amended their “create an account” page, so that the opt-in box is no longer pre-ticked.


UPDATE: 7 June

In a comment below a pseudonymed person suggests that the damages award was indeed tiny – £10 plus £25 costs. It also suggests that John Lewis tried to argue that they were permitted to send the emails by virtue of the “soft opt-in” provisions of regulation 22(3) PECR, perhaps spuriously arguing that Mr Mansfield and they were in negotiations for a sale.


Filed under damages, Data Protection, Information Commissioner, marketing, PECR

Fight back against damage and distress caused by inaccurate records

The distressing case of Sheila Holt, a woman in a coma, who was “harassed”* by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), and Seetec (DWP’s contractor carrying out work capability assessments) when they sent letters to her demanding she attempt to find work, casts light on an aspect of data protection law which is sometimes overlooked, at the expense of, for instance, data security.

I think Sheila Holt’s case suggests a possible serious contravention of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) regarding the need to hold accurate records of people’s personal information. If it were indeed found to be a serious contravention, it could give rise to the possibility of a civil claim against those responsible, and enforcement action by the Information Commissioner.

We have all, I’m sure, been exasperated by organisations which fail to update their records, or mix our records up with someone else. This exasperation has even found an outlet of sorts in comedy. But behind it lies a point given serious focus by Sheila Holt’s case, and it relates to a legal obligation under the DPA. I will explain in a little detail how this works, but it does occur to me that the DPA is an underused weapon in citizens’ and consumers’ armoury, when faced with unyielding bureaucracy, and at the end of this post I will suggest an approach people might take in such circumstances.

 Please note – none of this is new, and for some readers of this blog it is basic, but I thought it would be helpful to lay it out, for any future reference. I remind readers that it is not to be taken as advice, let alone legal advice.

In what follows, the aggrieved individual is a data subject, and the organisation with inaccurate records is the data controller (this is a broad generalisation for the purposes of this post).

By s4(4) of the DPA a data controller must comply with all of the data protection principles in Schedule One of the DPA, and the fourth principle says that “Personal data shall be accurate and, where necessary, kept up to date”. 

If a data subject wants to check the accuracy of the records held on them, they can submit a request under section 7 of the DPA. This gives a broad entitlement to know who is holding their information and for what purposes, and to have the information “communicated” to them (generally in the form of copies/print-outs). If the records are shown to be inaccurate then the data subject should notify the data controller and require them to correct them.

If they fail to do so, and continue using the inaccurate records, and the inaccuracies give rise to serious (or potentially serious) consequences, then the data subject may be able to serve a legal notice requiring the data controller to stop: Section 10(1) DPA allows a data subject to serve a data controller with a notice requiring it to cease processing data which is causing or is likely to cause substantial damage or substantial distress (and that damage or distress is unwarranted). Section 10(3) DPA requires the data controller within 21 days either to comply with the 10(1) notice, or provide reasons why it will not. Section 10(4) allows a court, upon application from someone who has served a 10(1) notice, to order steps to be taken.

So, it is at least possible that a data subject who has been put to considerable time, or cost or effort because of inaccurate (“unwarranted”) records, can serve a section 10 notice. However, if this doesn’t apply (perhaps the damage or distress can only be described as minor) there is a more direct legal route: Section 14(1) DPA allows a court, on the application of a data subject that personal data of which the applicant is the subject are inaccurate, to order rectification.

Additionally, there may be the possibility of compensation. Section 13(1) DPA provides that “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”. Section 13(2) provides that “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…if the individual also suffers damage by reason of the contravention” (emphases added). So, no compensation for distress unless “damage” can be shown (per Buxton LJ “…section 13 distress damages are only available if damage in the sense of pecuniary loss has been suffered…” in Johnson v Medical Defence Union [2007] EWCA Civ 262). But if a data subject can show pecuniary loss, the door to distress damages is opened (possibly even if the former is only nominal – see Halliday v Creation Consumer Finance Ltd [2013] EWCA Civ 333 where the defendant conceded nominal damages of £1, thus allowing a section 13(2) claim to proceed).

One further or parallel recourse for an aggrieved data subject is to ask the ICO, under section 42 DPA to assess whether it is likely or unlikely that that the handling of their data has been or is being carried out in compliance with the Act. A “compliance unlikely” assessment could, potentially, be used to bolster a claim under sections 10, 13 or 14. Moreover, it could lead to potential regulatory action against the data controller (for instance a civil monetary penalty notice under section 55A DPA, or an enforcement notice under section 40 DPA – although it should be noted that it would have to be a particularly serious breach of the “accuracy principle” to warrant such action, and to date, none such has been taken by the ICO). Systematic or egregious inaccuracy of records can often be an indicator of deeper information management failings, which should draw the ICO’s attention.

None of these various claims or actions under the DPA is likely to bring much comfort or relief to Sheila Holt and her family, but those who are harmed and distressed by inaccuracies in their personal information might want to consider doing some or all of the following 

  • Quantify, reasonably but comprehensively, what pecuniary damage you have suffered (letters written/phone calls made/ time off work/opportunities lost
  • Quantify how much consequent compensation for distress you think you are owed
  • Write to the data controller asking for the error to be rectified, and suggesting you might be owed appropriate compensation (as calculated above). Say that if they are not able to meet your demand you reserve the right to ask the IC to make a s42 assessment and/or make a claim under section 14 and (if appropriate) section 13(1) and (2). Say that you also reserve the right to draw the IC’s attention to what might be a serious contravention of the DPA of a kind likely to cause substantial damage or substantial distress
  • Serve a section 10(1) DPA notice requiring the CRA to cease processing inaccurate data (and to rectify) and tell them you reserve the right to seek compensation from them

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has helpful guidance on taking a data protection case to court.

*”harassed” was the word use in Parliament by the Minister


Filed under damages, Data Protection, Information Commissioner

Data protection compensation – an alternative route?

Compensation for data protection breaches can be difficult to secure – but if the data controller is a public authority there may be an alternative to legal claims

One of the outcomes of what was by any standards a disastrous breach of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) was announced this week, when Hodge Jones & Allen LLP (who might want to proofread their press releases a bit better) issued a statement saying that they had secured compensation payments totalling £43,000 for fourteen residents who had brought claims against Islington Council. They were among fifty residents whose personal data was mistakenly given to ten people upon whom the Council was serving anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs). As the Islington Gazette reported at the time

council staff passed details of 51 people, many of whom had complained about antisocial behaviour (ASB) on the council’s flagship ASB hotline, to 10 thugs who had been causing trouble on the Andover estate, off Seven Sisters Road, Holloway…The gang, who had been smoking drugs and abusing passers-by, now have the names, street names and phone numbers where given of the residents, after the information was inadvertently attached to injunctions banning them from the estate…Police activity has been stepped up on the Andover, but many victims of the breach are from other areas.

The Gazette also reported that six families were to be rehoused, no doubt at considerable cost to the Council.

The law firm’s announcement (which also appears to relate to claims made by people who, in a separate incident involving the same council, had their personal data inadvertently exposed on a website) means, of course, that any claims will not go to trial, and we will not get the chance of a judicial determination of whether, or to what extent it is possible for claimants in these circumstances to gain compensation for pure distress, in the absence of actual damage.

Data Protection lawyers and practitioners will be well aware of this issue, and I wrote about it earlier this year. To crib my own post:

Section 13(1) of the Data Protection Act (DPA) provides a right to compensation for a data subject who has suffered damage by reason of any contravention by a data controller of any of the requirements of the Act.  The domestic authorities are clear that “damage” in this sense consists of pecuniary loss. Thus, section 13(1) is a “gateway” to a further right of compensation under section 13(2)(a), for distress. The right to distress compensation cannot be triggered unless section 13(1) damage has been suffered….[the position is unclear as to] whether nominal, as opposed to substantial, damages under section 13(1), could suffice to be a gateway to distress compensation, and, indeed, whether the DPA effectively transposes the requirements of the European Data Protection Directive to which it gives effect

In the instant cases, it is actually possible that substantial actual damage could have been suffered, but, more probably, these again were cases where (no doubt very high levels of) distress would have lacked compensation for want of the section 13(1) gateway.

In terms of the Council itself, as data controller, it was served by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) with a monetary penalty notice (MPN) of £70,000 for the DPA contravention which led to the “website incident”, and it appears that enforcement action may well result from the ASBO incident (one wonders if the ICO was awaiting the outcome of these legal claims). The ICO will need to determine whether it was a serious contravention of the DPA, of a kind likely to cause substantial damage or substantial distress (for analysis of what this requires, see my recent post here). Such MPNs do not though, in any case, compensate victims, but serve to punish the data controller (and the money goes into the government’s consolidated fund).

The Local Government Ombudsman

One does not know what the specific arrangements were between the claimants and their lawyers, but, unless the work was pro bono some fees will no doubt be owed from the former to the latter. It does occur to me that the claimants had an alternative way of seeking a remedy. The Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) investigates complaints made by people alleging administrative fault (“maladministration”) causing injustice, arising from actions or inactions of local authorities. In 2008 the LGO issued a report following investigation of a complaint that Basildon Council had

published personal and sensitive information about traveller families and their children on its website and in a report that was considered in the open part of a Council committee meeting, where copies were available to members of the public and the press who attended. The information included medical details, and the names and ages of all the children living on the site

But what is particularly interesting is that the LGO’s investigation was informed by a prior finding by the ICO in this matter (uncontested at the time by the Council) that the Council had been likely to have contravened the first data protection principle. The LGO has the power to recommend compensation payments, and in this case recommended each complainant be paid £300. Those payments were eventually effected, albeit after judicial review proceedings (an LGO recommendation is not actually binding on a council, although in the vast majority of cases they are complied).

It does seem to me that the Islington claimants could possibly have gained similar, or more compensation, by making a complaint to the LGO. It also seems to me that – where a DPA contravention by a local authority causes distress but no damage – aggrieved data subjects could consider whether the LGO could assist. And on a similar basis, where the contravention has been by a government department, or the NHS, or some other public bodies, whether the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman could assist.

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Filed under damages, Data Protection, Information Commissioner, monetary penalty notice, ombudsman