Damages under section 13 DPA: Court of Appeal’s judgment in Halliday

I blogged a while ago about the ex tempore judgment from the Court of Appeal in a potentially groundbreaking case on damages under section 13 of the DPA, namely Halliday v Creation Consumer Finance [2013] EWCA Civ 333. The point of potential importance was that ‘nominal damages’ appeared to suffice for the purposes of section 13(1), thereby opening up section 13(2). In short, the point is that claimants under the DPA cannot be compensated for distress unless they have also suffered financial harm. A ‘nominal damages’ approach to the concept of financial harm threatened to make the DPA’s compensation regime dramatically more claimant-friendly.

The Court of Appeal’s full judgment is now available. As pointed out on Jon Baines’ blog, ground has not been broken: the ‘nominal damages’ point was a concession by the defendant rather than a determination by the Court. See paragraph 3 of the judgment of Lady Justice Arden:

“… this issue, which was the main issue of the proposed appeal to this court, is now academic as the respondent, CCF, concedes an award of nominal damages is “damage” for the purposes of the Directive and for the purposes of section 13(2) of the Data Protection Act 1998.”

Other potentially important points have also fallen somewhat flat. The question of whether UK law provided an adequate remedy for a breach of a right conferred by a European Directive fell away on the facts (“proof fell short in relation to the question of damage to reputation and credit”), while the provision for sanctions under Article 24 of Directive 95/46/EC was neither directly enforceable to Mr Halliday nor of assistance to him.

Still, the judgment is not without its notable points.

One is the recognition that compensation for harm suffered is a distinct matter from penalties for wrongdoing; the former is a matter for the courts in the DPA context, the latter a matter for the Information Commissioner and his monetary penalty powers. Such was the implication of paragraph 11:

“… it is not the function of the civil court, unless specifically provided for, to impose sanctions. That is done in other parts of the judicial system.”

Another point worth noting is Lady Justice Arden’s analysis of distress and the causation thereof. The distress must be caused by the breach, not by other factors such as (in this case) a failure to comply with a court order. See paragraph 20:

“Focusing on subsection (2), it is clear that the claimant has to be an individual, that he has to have suffered distress, and that the distress has to have been caused by contravention by a data controller of any of the requirements of the Act. In other words, this is a remedy which is not for distress at large but only for contravention of the data processing requirements. It also has to be distress suffered by the complainant and therefore would not include distress suffered by family members unless it was also suffered by him. When I say that it has to be caused by breach of the requirements of the Act, the distress which I accept Mr Halliday would have felt at the non-compliance of the order is not, at least directly, relevant because that is not distress by reason of the contravention by a data controller of the requirements of this Act. If the sole cause of the distress had been non-compliance with a court order, then that would have lain outside the Act unless it could be shown that it was in substance about the non-compliance with the Data Protection Act.”

The claimant had sought to draw an analogy with guidelines and banding for discrimination awards as set by Vento v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police [2013] 1 ICR 31. The Court of Appeal was not attracted. See paragraph 26:

“In answer to that point, the field of discrimination is, it seems to me, not a helpful guide for the purposes of data protection. Discrimination is generally accompanied by loss of equality of opportunity with far-reaching effects and is liable to cause distinct and well-known distress to the complainant.”

Finally, Lady Justice Arden commented as follows concerning the level of the compensation to be awarded on the facts of this case: “in my judgment the sum to be awarded should be of a relatively modest nature since it is not the intention of the legislation to produce some kind of substantial award. It is intended to be compensation, and thus I would consider it sufficient to render an award in the sum of £750” (paragraph 36).

Lord Justice Lloyd (who, along with Mr Justice Ryder agreed with Lady Justice Arden) did pause to think about a submission on this question ‘if you were so distressed, why did you not complain immediately?’, but concluded that (paragraph 47):

“I confess that I was somewhat impressed at one point by Mr Capon’s submission that it was a surprise, if Mr Halliday was so distressed by this contravention, that he did not immediately protest upon discovering, in response to his first credit reference enquiry, the fact of the contravention, and indeed he did not protest until about a month after the second report had been obtained. But I bear in mind, in response to that, Mr Halliday’s comment that he had had such difficulty in getting any sensible response, or indeed any response, out of CCF at the earlier stage, that it is perhaps less surprising that he did not immediately protest. In any event, the period in question is not a very lengthy one between his discovery of the contravention by his first reference request and his taking action in July. Accordingly, it does not seem to me that that is a matter that should be taken to reduce my assessment of the degree of distress that he suffered.”

Robin Hopkins