High Court Judgment on Inspection of Personal Data

The High Court has recently handed down an interesting judgment on the extent to which redacted personal data contained in documents disclosed in the course of litigation was vulnerable to inspection. The judgment also highlights some of the limits which may be placed on parties seeking inspection of databases containing personal data. In Webster & Ors v Ridgeway Foundation School Governors [2009] EWHC 1140 (QB), the claimants had brought claims against the governors of a school on the basis that they had suffered racially motivated assaults on school property. They alleged that the governors had caused or contributed to the injury by negligently failing to maintain proper disciplinary standards or otherwise taking proper care with respect to pupil security, particularly by allowing racial tensions to develop. During the course of standard disclosure, the governors disclosed a log of investigations into racist incidents, bullying and aggression in the school. Moreover, one of their witness statements disclosed the existence of a computerized system used to record pupil behaviour. The governors allowed inspection of the disclosed documents but redacted the names of purported victims of racism, bullying and aggression. The claimants sought disclosure of the redacted names and, further, of the computerized system. They argued that they needed to access this information in order to assess whether there were other pupils who might be able to provide useful evidence and that they had a right to inspect that information given that its existence had been disclosed by the governors.

Nicol J refused the claimants’ application for inspection of the redacted information and the computerized system. He held that that the mere fact that a document had been disclosed did not mean that there was an automatic right of inspection in respect of all of the information it contained, not least this was because some of the information in the disclosed document may not be relevant to the matters in issue. On the facts of the instant case, Nicol J found that inspection of the redacted names could and should be refused on the basis that: (a) it would amount to an interference with the privacy rights of the individual children named in the documents; and (b) that interference was not necessary in the instant case as the claimants did not need to know the identities of the purported victims in order to have a fair trial or for the fair disposal of the litigation (Science Research Council v Nasse [1980] AC 1028 HL applied). With respect to the computerized system, Nicol J accepted that mention of a document in a witness statement could be equated with inclusion of a document in a disclosure list and, hence, prima facie it would give rise to an obligation to permit inspection. However, he also held that that general proposition was subject to the qualifications contained in CPR 31.3, which included the right to object to disclosure on grounds of proportionality. Nicol J went on to find that permitting inspection of the computerized database would be disproportionate, particularly because: (a) the governors would have to redact the entire database to ensure that any private information relating to individual pupils and, further, any irrelevant information was not disclosed, which was a very substantial task and (b) undertaking this task was disproportionate having regard to any possible benefit for the claimants and the issues in the case.