Abortion statistics: identification of patients and doctors held to be unlikely

In 2003, the Department of Health significantly reduced the detail of publicly available statistics on abortion operations: for example, no information was any longer to be released about post-24-week abortions carried out on the grounds of foetal medical defects. The Department relied principally on s. 40 FOIA in refusing the Prolife Alliance’s request for more detailed data. The Information Tribunal has, however, ordered the statistics to be disclosed: see Department of Health v IC (Additional Party: the Pro Life Alliance) (EA/2008/0074). The Tribunal agreed with the Department that the requested abortion statistics, although entirely anonymised, did constitute personal data because they were not anonymous in the hands of the data controller. The Department’s principal concern, namely the inferential identification of doctors or patients, was not, however considered ‘likely’ in the circumstances. This factual finding meant that, in the Tribunal’s view, the release of the requested personal data was fair and lawful and that (under paragraph 6(1) of Schedule 2 to the DPA) the potential prejudice to patients and doctors was outweighed by legitimate third party interests in (inter alia) monitoring compliance with abortion law, identifying abortion trends, informing public debate and encouraging accountability of medical practitioners. The decision is of note for its detailed analysis of the ways in which individuals might be identified from statistical data, and for the Tribunal’s reliance on the Corporate Officer of the House of Commons litigation (in its various stages) for guidance on the balancing test under paragraph 6(1) of Schedule 2 to the DPA.