Fairness under the DPA: public interests can outweigh those of the data subject

June 18th, 2014 by Robin Hopkins

Suppose a departing employee was the subject of serious allegations which you never had the chance properly to investigate or determine. Should you mention these (unproven) allegations to a future employer? Difficult questions arise, in both ethical and legal terms. One aspect of the legal difficulty arises under data protection law: would it be fair to share that personal information with the prospective employer?

The difficulty is enhanced because fairness – so pivotal to data protection analysis – has had little or no legal treatment.

This week’s judgment of Mr Justice Cranston in AB v A Chief Constable [2014] EWHC 1965 (QB) is in that sense a rare thing – a judicial analysis of fairness.

AB was a senior police officer – specifically, a chief superintendent. He was given a final written warning in 2009 following a disciplinary investigation. Later, he was subject to further investigation for allegedly seeking to influence the police force’s appointment process in favour of an acquaintance of AB; this raised a number of serious questions, including about potential dishonesty, lack of integrity, and so on.

AB was on sick leave (including for reasons related to psychological health) for much of the period when that second investigation was unfolding. He was unhappy with how the Force was treating him. He got an alternative job offer from a regulator. He then resigned from the Force before the hearing concerning his alleged disciplinary offences. His resignation was accepted. The Force provided him with a standard reference, but the Chief Constable then took the view that – given the particular, unusual circumstances – he should provide the prospective employer with a second reference, explaining the allegations about AB.

The second reference was to say inter alia that:

“[AB’s] resignation letter pre-dated by some 13 days a gross misconduct hearing at which he was due to appear to face allegations of (i) lack of honesty and integrity (ii) discreditable conduct and (iii) abuse of authority in relation to a recruitment issue. It is right to record that he strenuously denied those allegations. In the light of his resignation the misconduct hearing has been stayed as it is not in the public interest to incur the cost of a hearing when the officer concerned has already resigned, albeit his final date of service post-dating the hearing.”

AB objected to the giving of the second reference and issued a section 10 notice under the Data Protection Act 1998. The lawfulness of the Force’s proposed second reference arose for consideration by Cranston J.

The first issue was this: was the Chief Constable legally obliged to provide a second reference explaining those concerns?

Cranston J held that, in terms of the common/private law duty of care (on the Hedley Byrne line of authority), the answer was no. As a matter of public law, however – and specifically by reference to the Police Conduct Regulations – the answer was yes: “the Chief Constable was obliged by his duty to act with honesty and integrity not to give a standard reference for the recipient because that was misleading. Something more was demanded. In this case the Chief Constable was prima facie under a duty to supply the Regulatory Body at the least with the information about disciplinary matters in the second reference.”

Note the qualifier ‘prima facie’: the upshot was that the duty was displaced if the provision of the second reference would breach the DPA. This raised a number of issues for the Court.

First, no information about AB’s health could be imparted: this was sensitive personal data, and the Chief Constable did not assert that a Schedule 3 DPA condition was met (as required under the First Data Protection Principle).

What about the information as to the disciplinary allegations AB faced? This was not sensitive personal data. Therefore, under the First Data Protection Principle, it could be disclosed if to do so would be (a) fair, (b) lawful, and (c) in accordance with a Schedule 2 condition.

The last two were unproblematic: given the prima facie public law duty to make the second reference here, it would lawful to do so and condition 3 from Schedule 2 would be met.

This left ‘fairness’, which Cranston J discussed in the following terms:

“There is no definition of fairness in the 1998 Act. The Directive 95/46/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 24 October 1995, to which the 1998 Act gives effect, contains a reference to protecting privacy rights, as recognised in article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and in general principles of EU law: recital 10. However, I cannot accept Mr Lock QC’s submission that the duty of fairness under the Directive and the 1998 Act is a duty to be fair primarily to the data subject. The rights to private and family life in Article 8 are subject to the countervailing public interests set out in Article 8(2). So it is here: assessing fairness involves a balancing of the interests of the data subject in non-disclosure against the public interest in disclosure.”

In conducting this balance between the interests of AB and those of others (including the public interests), Cranston J ultimately – on the particular facts – concluded that it would have been unfair to provide the second reference. There were strong fairness arguments in favour of disclosure – a see paragraph 78 (my emphasis):

“… The focus must be on fairness in the immediate decision to disclose the data [as opposed to a wider-ranging inquiry into the data subject’s conduct in the build-up to disclosure]. In this case the factors making it fair to disclose the information were the public interest in full and frank references, especially the duty of the police service properly to inform other police forces and other regulatory bodies of the person they are seeking to employ. To disclose the information in the second reference would patently have been fair to the Regulatory Body, so it could make a rounded assessment of the claimant, especially given his non-disclosure during the application process.”

However, the balance tipped in AB’s favour. This was partly because the Force’s policy – as well as the undertaken specifically given to AB – was to provide only a standard reference. But (see paragraph 79):

“… what in my view is determinative, and tips the balance of fairness in this case in favour of the claimant, is that he changed his position by resigning from the Force and requesting it to discontinue the disciplinary proceedings, before knowing that the Chief Constable intended to send the second reference. That second reference threatened the job which he had accepted with the Regulatory Body. It is unrealistic to think that the claimant could have taken steps to reverse his resignation in the few weeks before it would take effect. Deputy Chief Constable CD for one had indicated that he would not allow it. The reality was that the claimant was in an invidious position, where in reliance on what the Force through GH had said and done, he was deprived of the opportunity to reinstate the disciplinary proceedings and to fight the allegations against him. This substantive unfairness for the claimant was coupled with the procedural unfairness in the decision to send the second reference without giving him the opportunity to make representations against that course of action. Asking him to comment on its terms after the final decision to send the second reference was too little, too late.”

Therefore, because of unfairness in breach of the DPA and because of AB’s legitimate expectations, the second reference was not lawful.

While Cranston J rightly emphasised the highly fact-specific nature of his overall conclusion, aspects of his discussion of fairness will potentially be of wider application.

So too will his reminder (by way of quoting ICO guidance) that, when it comes to section 10 notices, “Although this [section 10] may give the impression that an individual can simply demand than an organisation stops processing personal data about them, or stops processing it in a particular way, the right is often overstated. In practice, it is much more limited”. Again, in other words, a balancing of interests and an assessment of the justification for the processing is required.

With the ‘right to be forgotten’ very much in vogue, that is a useful point to keep in mind.

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin


(Scottish) Data protection litigation – South Lanarkshire and more

July 29th, 2013 by Robin Hopkins

I have observed (Panopticon passim) that the Data Protection Act 1998 features surprisingly sparingly in litigation. That appears to be somewhat less true of Scotland: for instance, Common Services Agency [2011] 1 Info LR 184, the leading case on anonymisation and barnardisation, came before the House of Lords from Scottish litigation. Here are two more recent examples, one from today, the other from last month.

South Lanarkshire

The Supreme Court has today given judgment in an appeal from the Inner House of the Scottish Court of Session about a FOI(S)A request for the number of individuals employed by South Lanarkshire Council on specific points in the pay structure, for the purposes of analysing compliance with Equal Pay legislation. The Council relied on the personal data exemption (contending that individuals could be identified from the requested information), but the Scottish Information Commissioner ordered disclosure. The Council’s appeal was dismissed by the Court of Session ([2012] CSIH 30) and, today, by the Supreme Court (South Lanarkshire Council v Scottish IC [2013] UKSC 55).

There were two issues for the Supreme Court. First, what does ‘necessary’ mean when it comes to condition 6(1) of schedule 2 to the DPA (the condition most often relied upon in support of disclosing personal data to the public), which provides that:

The processing is necessary for the purposes of legitimate interests pursued by the data controller or by the third party or parties to whom the data are disclosed, except where the processing is unwarranted in any particular case by reason of prejudice to the rights and freedoms or legitimate interests of the data subject.

Giving the Court’s judgment, Baroness Hale said that it was obvious that condition 6 requires three questions to be answered: (i) is the data controller or the third party or parties to whom the data are disclosed pursuing a legitimate interest or interests?, (ii) is the processing involved necessary for the purposes of those interests?, and (iii) is the processing unwarranted in this case by reason of prejudice to the rights and freedoms or legitimate interests of the data subject? In her view, “it is not obvious why any further exegesis of those questions is required” (paragraph 18).

Further exegesis was, however, required because of the Council’s submissions as to how strictly the term “necessary” should be construed. Baroness Hale’s answer was entirely unsurprising (see paragraphs 25-28). “Necessary” has to be considered in relation to the processing to which it relates. If the processing involves no interference with Article 8 ECHR rights, then it might be thought that all that has to be asked is whether the requester is pursuing a legitimate interest in seeking the information (which was not at issue in this case) and whether he needs that information in order to pursue it. If the processing does engage Article 8 ECHR rights, then “it is well established in community law that, at least in the context of justification rather than derogation, “necessary” means “reasonably” rather than absolutely or strictly necessary”. None of this will come as a surprise – as, for example, Jon Baines has observed in his Information Rights and Wrongs post. Indeed, as Baroness Hale observed, it is unclear that the stricter standard of necessity for which the Council argued would have been any more favourable to it.

The second issue before the Supreme Court was a natural justice challenge. The Scottish IC had asked the applicant a number of questions during his investigation, and had also received letters supporting the request from a number of MPs. This information had not been shared with the Council.

Baroness Hale observed that it was common ground that the Commissioner has a duty to act fairly (see for example Glasgow City Council v Scottish Information Commissioner [2009] CSIH 73, 2010 SC 125). The Commissioner is entitled to make his own enquiries and formulate cases on behalf of applicants, but “he must, of course, give them notice of any new material which his inquiries have elicited and which is adverse to their interests” (paragraph 31). Her Ladyship further observed (paragraphs 31-32) that:

“31. I would add that the Commissioner is fulfilling more than an administrative function. He is adjudicating upon competing claims. And in Scotland, unlike England and Wales, there is no appeal to a tribunal which can decide questions of both fact and law. The Commissioner is the sole finder of facts, with a right of appeal to the Inner House on a point of law only. These factors clearly enhance his duty to be fair. If wrong findings of fact are made as a result of an unfair process, the Inner House will not be able to correct them.

32. However, it does not follow that every communication passing between the Commissioner and the applicant, or between the Commissioner and third parties such as Members of the Scottish Parliament, has to be copied to the public authority…”

In this case, there was no breach of natural justice, and the Council’s appeal failed on both grounds.


Another of the more notable recent data protection cases is also Scottish. Additionally, it touches upon another of my observations (see here, for example) about the potential synergies and overlaps between the DPA and defamation. The case is Lyons v Chief Constable of Strathclyde Police [2013] CSIH 46 A681/10, and will be reported in the upcoming edition of the 11KBW/Justis Information Law Reports. In rough outline, the case concerned Mr Lyons’ complaints about two disclosures about him made by the police authority to regulatory/licensing bodies. The police had said that he was recorded on the Scottish Intelligence Database as having been involved in serious organised crime. Mr Lyons denied such involvement, and sued for defamation and damages under section 13 of the DPA.

His defamation claim failed because the police’s communications were made in circumstances which attracted qualified privilege, and were not tainted by malice.

The DPA claim failed too. The accuracy requirement of the fourth data protection principle had not been breached, because even if “Mr Lyons is involved in crime” were inaccurate, “Mr Lyons is recorded on the database as being involved in crime” could not be said to be inaccurate. The police’s reporting of that information arguably lent it some credence, but there was no indication on the facts of unequivocal endorsement of these statements such as to constitute the processing of inaccurate personal data by the police. Here the Court considered the Kordowski DPA/defamation case.

There was also an argument that disclosure of this information had been unfair, though (surprisingly) the case does not appear to have been pleaded as such. The essence of the unfairness argument was that, in Mr Lyons’ view, the police should have contextualised its disclosures by explaining to the recipients the source of the intelligence as to his alleged criminal involvement. The Court of Session dismissed this argument: the police could not sensibly disclose the identities of informants, given the DPA rights of the informants themselves, while Mr Lyons would not be entitled to learn through a subject access request who the informants were (see the exemptions under sections 29 and 31 of the DPA).

Here are a few interesting DPA points to emerge from the Court’s discussion. One is if a data controller endorses the veracity of inaccurate information obtained from someone else, that is not of itself a breach of the DPA (see paragraph 21). Some might query this, at least if applied inflexibly.

A second interesting point is that some might argue as follows: “to present decontextualised allegations in a manner which suggests you consider them credible could surely constitute unfairness. Perhaps you were not required to name your sources, but in the interests of fairness you could at least have made clear that you were passing on information obtained from others whom you considered to be credible”. Roughly that sort of argument seems to have been advanced here; no doubt the facts did not ultimately support it, but stepping back from the facts of this case, the (admittedly woolly and under-litigated) notion of fairness would arguably demand such an approach in many cases.

A third and final point of interest: the complainant relied on what he said were breaches by the police of a number of common law principles emerging from judicial review jurisprudence and the like. The Court was not impressed by their relevance to alleged DPA breaches, at least in the context of this case: see paragraphs 26-27, where the Court suggested that for there to be a DPA breach, there must be a particular DPA requirement which has been breached (though admittedly it did observe earlier in its judgment that ‘lawful’ in the context of the first data protection principle has no special meaning). Some might argue that fairness and lawfulness are designed to be broad enough to encompass principles outside of the black letters of DPA law. Indeed, Article 8 ECHR is increasingly the focus of arguments as to the lawfulness of processing: see for example the ICO’s enforcement notice concerning the use of ANPR cameras in the policing context, issued last week.

In other words, the DPA is not designed to be an entirely self-contained legal world, but rather to protect personal information by reference to all considerations having a bearing on what is being done with that individual’s information, whether or not they are listed by name in the DPA. This is not necessarily a point of disagreement with the Lyons outcome, but a broader observation about what kind of a creature the DPA is, or is intended to be.

Robin Hopkins (@hopkinsrobin)



September 16th, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

In Colleen Smith v IC and Devon & Cornwall Constabulary (EA/2011/0006), the requester asked for information on the number of school teachers in specified towns who had been investigated, cautioned and charged under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 between January 2005 and November 2007. The Constabulary eventually relied on the personal data at section 40(2) FOIA.

The Commissioner found that, where the answer was “zero”, this was not personal data and should be disclosed; otherwise, the information could be withheld under section 40. The Tribunal has upheld this decision, albeit for different reasons.

This decision is worth noting on a number of grounds.

First, this is a good illustration of the approach from Department of Health v IC [2011] EWHC 1430 (Admin) (the “abortion statistics” case – see my post here) to the definition of “personal data” in the context of apparently anonymous statistics. Here the Tribunal considered both the disputed information concerning numbers of alleged sex offenders and the “other information” held by the Constabulary, and was satisfied that living individuals could thereby be identified. Furthermore, for obvious reasons, this constituted “sensitive personal data”.

Secondly, the Tribunal turned to fairness of disclosure. As regards reasonable expectations of data subjects, it concluded (for confidential reasons, and notwithstanding that one can generally assume sensitive personal data will not be disclosed) that the data subjects in these circumstances could have had no reasonable expectation that these statistics would not be disclosed at the relevant time, i.e. late 2007.

Thirdly, the Tribunal also disagreed with the Commissioner that disclosure created a risk of harm to the suspected offenders at the relevant time.

Fourthly, the Tribunal considered whether a condition from Schedule 3 of the DPA 1998 would be met. It did so by asking itself whether paragraph 3 of the Schedule of the Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data) Order 2000 applied. That concerns, inter alia, disclosure of information concerning alleged unlawful acts for “special purposes” such as journalism. Disclosure must, however, be “in the substantial public interest”.

The “special purpose” of journalism highlights the following important reminder. It is by now axiomatic that FOIA is “motive blind”. However, the cases of Ferguson v IC (EA/2010/0085) (on which, see my post here) and Brett v IC (EA/2008/0098) imposed an important gloss on that principle. The Tribunal in Ferguson summed up the point thus:

“It is often stated that requester’s rights under FOIA are purpose-blind, in the sense that an applicant’s personal identity and motives for requesting information are irrelevant. This generalisation can mislead. There are some cases in which the applicant’s identity and motives may shed light on the public interests involved. More significantly, the applicant’s identify and motives can be of direct relevance to the exemption in FOIA s40(2) because of the provisions of DPA disclosure and to the interests pursued by the persons to whom the disclosure would be made. For example, a journalist or author may be able to outflank the s40(2) exemption by reliance upon DPA Schedule 3 condition 10 and paragraph 3 of the Schedule to the Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data) Order 2000, where it is in the substantial public interest that wrongdoing should be publicised.”

The Tribunal in Smith agreed. The appeal, however, failed because disclosure of this information would not be “in the substantial public interest”.

The Tribunal thought it “reasonable to assume… that the public had an ongoing need for reassurance as to the level of activity by sexual offenders in particular localities and transparency and accountability in what the police were doing about it”. The threshold of “substantial public interest”, however, required a certain level of urgency in the need to reassure the public. That threshold was not met here.

In reaching this conclusion (which the Tribunal described as “finely balanced”), the Tribunal took into account: the evidence as to the machinery for the monitoring and supervision of sex offenders in the community; the risk of vigilantism, which can force suspects to “disappear”, which in turn increases the risk of reoffending. It added that:

“It was not enough, in the Tribunal’s view, that sexual offences by teachers or others in positions of trust was a matter of keen interest to the public. This, on its own, did not make disclosure “in the substantial public interest”. It was the Tribunal’s task to weigh against the wholly understandable concern felt by members of the public on this subject, the detrimental effects that disclosure could have.”

The upshot was that, although disclosure would be fair, section 40(2) took effect because no Schedule 3 condition would be met.

Robin Hopkins