When an identifiable individual has been the subject of a formal complaint about their competence or conduct, that fact constitutes their personal data. In terms of privacy/publicity decisions, such situations are often approached in this way: where the complaint is well founded or at least merits serious consideration, publication is warranted, but otherwise confidentiality is maintained, lest unjustified aspersions be cast against that person.
In that respect, the process outlined by the Tribunal in Foster v IC (EA/2013/0176) – which concerned a complaint to the Nursing & Midwifery Council – is typical:
“The complaints procedure administered by the NMC has two stages. The first stage is designed to determine whether or not the matter should be referred to the NMC’s Fitness to Practice Panel. If it is, then the Panel will meet in public and its decision will be made publicly available. But if the complaint does not proceed beyond the first stage, (either because a decision is made not to investigate or because the NMC’s Investigating Committee Panel concludes that the complaint does not justify a reference to the Fitness to Practice Panel), then the process remains confidential. The rationale appears to be that an individual’s professional reputation should not be undermined by the publication of allegations that are found not to have sufficient merit to justify being referred to the Fitness to Practice Panel”.
The Appellant, whose son died following his participation in a drug trial, considered that the NMC investigation in this case – which did not pass the first stage – may have been inadequate. She asked for information about its investigation into her complaint about a named practitioner.
The NMC adopted a ‘neither confirm nor deny’ position under section 40(5), i.e. it considered that to say whether or not it held information on a complaint about this individual would be to tell the world at large whether or not that person had been the subject of a professional complaint of this description. The ICO agreed, but the Tribunal overturned that decision, ordering the NMC to confirm or deny whether it held the requested information.
In reaching that view, the Tribunal – while not passing judgment on the merits of the complaint or the NMC’s investigation – considered the criticisms that had been made:
“If it were to be the case that any member of the care team had realised the error earlier, but had not raised the alarm until after its very sad consequences had become clear, then there would seem to us to be strength in the Appellant’s argument that the evidential basis for the decision of the NMC’s Investigating Committee Panel required investigation”.
In those circumstances, the Tribunal thought the fairness balance favoured confirming or denying whether the requested information was held:
“In reaching that conclusion we reject the Information Commissioner’s argument that it is always unfair, and therefore in breach of the Data Protection Principles, to make a statement that discloses the existence of a complaint of professional misconduct against an individual, where there has been no finding of wrongdoing or malpractice. That would create an inflexible test which prevented all relevant circumstances being taken into account. Nor do we accept the Information Commissioner’s argument that the limited degree of disclosure involved in a “confirm or deny” response would constitute unwarranted interference into X’s privacy, without satisfying a legitimate public interest in disclosure”.
Public authorities who routinely adopt a default ‘neither confirm nor deny stance’ of the type outlined at the start of this post will wish to note that, at least in some circumstances, that approach can be called into question.
Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin