Given the paucity of case law, it is notoriously difficult to estimate likely awards of compensation under section 13 of the Data Protection Act 1998 for breaches of that Act. It is also very difficult to assess any trends in compensation awards over time.
AB v MoJ  EWHC 1847 (QB) is the Courts’ (Mr Justice Jeremy Baker) latest consideration of compensation under the DPA. The factual background involves protracted correspondence involving numerous subject access requests. Ultimately, it was held that the Defendant failed to provide certain documents to which the Claimant was entitled under section 7 of the DPA within the time frames set out under that section.
There was a dispute as to whether one particular document contained the Claimant’s ‘personal data’. Baker J noted the arguments from Common Services Agency, and he is not the first to observe (at his paragraph 50) that it is sometimes not a ‘straightforward issue’ to determine whether or not information comes within the statutory definition of personal data. Ultimately, he considered that the disputed document did not come within that definition: it “is in wholly neutral terms, and is indeed merely a conduit for the provision of information contained in the letters which it enclosed which certainly did contain the claimant’s personal data”.
Nonetheless, the DPA had been breached in virtue of the delays in the provision of other information to which the Claimant was entitled under section 7. What compensation should he be awarded?
Damage under section 13(1) DPA
Baker J was satisfied, having considered In Halliday v Creation Consumer Finance Limited  EWCA Civ 333,  2 Info LR 85 (where the same point was conceded), that nominal damage sufficed as ‘damage’ for section 13(1) purposes: “In this regard the word “damage” in this sub-section is not qualified in any way, such that to my mind provided that there has, as in this case, been some relevant loss, then an individual who has also suffered relevant distress is entitled to an award of compensation in respect of it”.
Here the Court was satisfied that nominal damages should be awarded. The Claimant had spent a lot of time pursuing his requests, albeit that much of that time also involved pursuing requests on clients’ behalves, and albeit that no actual loss had been quantified:
“Essentially the claimant is a professional man who, it is apparent from his witness statement, has expended a considerable amount of time and expense in the pursuit of the disclosure of his and others’ data from various Government Departments and other public bodies, including the disclosed and withheld material from the defendant. Having said that, the claimant has not sought to quantify his time and expense, nor has he allocated it between the various requests on his own and others’ behalves. In these circumstances, although I am satisfied that he has suffered damage in accordance with s.13(1) of the DPA 1998, I consider that this is a case in which an award of nominal damages is appropriate under this head, which will be in the conventional sum of £1.00.”
Distress under section 13(2) DPA
That finding opened the door to an award for distress. The Court found that distress had been suffered, although it was difficult to disentangle his distress attributable to the breaches of the DPA from his distress as to the other surrounding circumstances: “doing the best I am able to on the evidence before me I consider that any award of compensation for distress caused as a result of the relevant delays in this case, should be in the sum of £2,250.00”.
Until this week, Halliday was the Courts’ last reported (on Panopticon at any rate) award of compensation under section 13 DPA. That was 14 months ago. In AB, the Court awarded precisely triple that sum for distress.
For a further (and quicker-off-the-mark) discussion of AB, see this post on Jon Baines’ blog, Information Rights and Wrongs.
Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin