Legal analysis of individual’s situation is not their personal data, says Advocate General

YS, M and S were three people who applied for lawful residence in the Netherlands. The latter two had their applications granted, but YS’ was refused. All three wanted to see a minute drafted by an official of the relevant authority in the Netherlands containing internal legal analysis on whether to grant them residence status. They made subject access requests under Dutch data protection law, the relevant provisions of which implement Article 12 of Directive 95/46/EC. They were given some of the contents of the minutes, but the legal analysis was withheld. This was challenged before the Dutch courts. Questions were referred to the CJEU on the application of data protection law to such information. In Joined Cases C‑141/12 and C‑372/12, Advocate General Sharpston has given her opinion, which the CJEU will consider before giving its judgment next year. Here are some important points from the AG’s opinion.

The definition of personal data

The minutes in question contained inter alia: the name, date of birth, nationality, sex, ethnicity, religion and language of the applicant; information about the procedural history; information about declarations made by the applicant and documents submitted; the applicable legal provisions and an assessment of the relevant information in the light of the applicable law.

Apart from the latter – the legal advice – the AG’s view is that this information does come within the meaning of personal data under the Directive. She said this:

“44. In general, ‘personal data’ is a broad concept. The Court has held that the term covers, for example, ‘the name of a person in conjunction with his telephone coordinates or information about his working conditions or hobbies’, his address, his daily work periods, rest periods and corresponding breaks and intervals, monies paid by certain bodies and the recipients, amounts of earned or unearned incomes and assets of natural persons.

45. The actual content of that information appears to be of no consequence as long as it relates to an identified or identifiable natural person. It can be understood to relate to any facts regarding that person’s private life and possibly, where relevant, his professional life (which might involve a more public aspect of that private life). It may be available in written form or be contained in, for example, a sound or image.”

The suggestion in the final paragraph is that the information need not have a substantial bearing on the individual’s privacy in order to constitute their personal data.

The AG also observed that “Directive 95/46 does not establish a right of access to any or every document or file in which personal data are listed or used” (paragraph 71). This resonates with the UK’s long-established Durant ‘notions of assistance’.

Legal analysis is not personal data

AG Sharpston’s view, however, was that the legal analysis of the individuals’ situations did not constitute their personal data. Her reasoning – complete with illustrative examples – is as follows:

“55. I am not convinced that the phrase ‘any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person’ in Directive 95/46 should be read so widely as to cover all of the communicable content in which factual elements relating to a data subject are embedded.

56. In my opinion, only information relating to facts about an individual can be personal data. Except for the fact that it exists, a legal analysis is not such a fact. Thus, for example, a person’s address is personal data but an analysis of his domicile for legal purposes is not.

57. In that context, I do not find it helpful to distinguish between ‘objective’ facts and ‘subjective’ analysis. Facts can be expressed in different forms, some of which will result from assessing whatever is identifiable. For example, a person’s weight might be expressed objectively in kilos or in subjective terms such as ‘underweight’ or ‘obese’. Thus, I do not exclude the possibility that assessments and opinions may sometimes fall to be classified as data.

58. However, the steps of reasoning by which the conclusion is reached that a person is ‘underweight’ or ‘obese’ are not facts, any more than legal analysis is.”

Interestingly, her conclusion did touch upon the underlying connection between personal data and privacy. At paragraph 60, she observed that “… legal analysis as such does not fall within the sphere of an individual’s right to privacy. There is therefore no reason to assume that that individual is himself uniquely qualified to verify and rectify it and ask that it be erased or blocked. Rather, it is for an independent judicial authority to review the decision for which that legal analysis was prepared.”

In any event, legal analysis does not amount to “processing” for data protection purposes

The AG considered that legal analysis such as this was neither ‘automatic’ nor part of a ‘relevant filing system’. “Rather, it is a process controlled entirely by individual human intervention through which personal data (in so far as they are relevant to the legal analysis) are assessed, classified in legal terms and subjected to the application of the law, and by which a decision is taken on a question of law. Furthermore, that process is neither automatic nor directed at filing data” (paragraph 63).

Entitlement to data, but not in a set form

The AG also says that what matters is that individuals are provided with their data – data controllers are not, under the Directive, required to provide it in any particular form. For example, they can extract or transcribe rather than photocopy the relevant minute:

“74. Directive 95/46 does not require personal data covered by the right of access to be made available in the material form in which they exist or were initially recorded. In that regard, I consider that a Member State has a considerable margin of discretion to determine, based on the individual circumstances in case, the form in which to make personal data accessible.

75. In making that assessment, a Member State should take account of, in particular: (i) the material form(s) in which that information exists and can be made available to the data subject, (ii) the type of personal data and (iii) the objectives of the right of access.”

If the legal analysis is personal data, then the exemptions do not apply

Under the Directive, Article 12 provides the subject access right. Article 13 provides exemptions. The AG’s view was that if, contrary to her opinion, the legal analysis is found to be personal data, then exemptions from the duty to communicate that data would not be available. Of particular interest was her view concerning the exemption under Article 13(1)(g) for the “protection of the data subject or of the rights and freedoms of others”. Her view is that (paragraph 84):

“the protection of rights and freedoms of others (that is, other than the data subject) cannot be read as including rights and freedoms of the authority processing personal data. If a legal analysis is to be categorised as personal data, that must be because it is related to the private interests of an identified or identifiable person. Whilst the public interest in protecting internal advice in order to safeguard the administration’s ability to exercise its functions may indeed compete with the public interest in transparency, access to such advice cannot be restricted on the basis of the first of those two interests, because access covers only what falls within the private interest.”

If the Court agrees with the AG’s view, the case will be an important addition to case law offering guidance on the limits of personal data. It would also appear to limit, at least as regards the exemption outlined above, the data controller’s ability to rely on its own interests or on public interests to refuse subject access requests. That said, there is of course the exemption under Article 9 of the Directive for freedom of expression.

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin