An interesting issue about the scope of the DPA arose in The Law Society and others v Rick Kordowski [2011] EWHC 3185 (QB). The Law Society and a number of firms of solicitors sought an injunction requiring the Defendant, the publisher of the “Solicitors from Hell” website, to cease publication of the website in its entirety and to restrain him from publishing any similar website. The causes of action relied upon were libel, harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and breach of the Data Protection Act 1998.

The Defendant was the data controller of personal data, including sensitive personal data (for example, allegations made by a third party on the Defendant’s website about the alleged commission of an offence by a solicitor). Mr Justice Tugendhat did not mince his words in finding that the Defendant was in breach of the DPA:

In breach of the First Data Protection Principle the Defendant has not processed the personal data of the solicitors and other individuals named on the Website fairly and lawfully. The Defendant has processed the said personal data in a grossly unfair and unlawful way by, in particular, (a) publishing highly offensive defamatory allegations about these solicitors and other individuals on the Website; (b) pursuing a course of conduct against these solicitors and other individuals that amounts to harassment contrary to the PHA; (c) on numerous occasions refusing to remove the posting about a solicitor or other individual unless the Defendant is paid a fee. This is not permitted by law and is disreputable. (d) None of the conditions in Schedule 2 of the DPA 1998 is met by the Defendant in respect of the processing of the said personal data on the Website.

In breach of the Fourth Data Protection Principle the personal and sensitive personal data about solicitors and other individuals processed by the Defendant and published on the Website is not accurate, indeed it is usually seriously inaccurate. The Claimants rely upon the following, amongst other matters: (a) The wholly inaccurate and untrue allegations processed and published by the Defendant via the Website about the Third Claimant; (b) The Schedule of Complaints which sets out and describes how the personal data of solicitors and other individuals processed and published by the Defendant via the Website is inaccurate. (c) The Defendant’s failed attempts to justify defamatory allegations in the many cases brought against him for libel in respect of the defamatory publications on the Website as evidence of inaccurate information; in breach of the Sixth Data Protection Principle the Defendant did (and does) not process personal data of the solicitors and other individuals who are Individual Complainants in accordance with their rights, as he has failed to comply with the request made in the Complaints’ solicitor’s letter dated 12 August 2011.

…on 12 August 2011 the Claimants’ solicitor gave the Defendant formal notice under section 10(1) of the DPA that the individual complainants, who include the Third Claimant, required the Defendant to cease the processing of their personal data (i.e. to remove the offending material from the Website and destroy any copies retained elsewhere) as the processing of this data was (and continues) causing them unwarranted damage and distress. Additionally, the Claimants’ solicitor required the Defendant to agree not to process any data in the manner complained of in the future. As a result of the Defendant’s failure to comply with the Notice, he has breached the Sixth Data Protection Principle. The Defendant did not state that he considered the notice to be unjustified (as he could have done under section 10(3)(b) of the DPA).”

Not surprisingly, given these findings, Mr Justice Tugendhat concluded that the Third Claimant was entitled to an order under section 10(4), requiring the Defendant to comply with the Notice. He went on to comment on the scope of the DPA and the Information Commissioner’s powers.  The background was that the Chief Executive of the Law Society had written to the Information Commissioner to complain about the website. The Information Commissioner had responded that the DPA was not designed to deal with this kind of case. The Commissioner considered that it was “not the purpose of the DPA to regulate an individual right to freedom of expression – even where the individual uses a third party website, rather than his own facilities, to exercise this“. He relied on section 36 DPA, which provides that “Personal data processed by an individual only for the purposes of that individual’s personal, family or household affairs (including recreational purposes) are exempt from the Data Protection principles under provisions of Parts II [rights of data subjects and others] and III [Notification by data controllers]”. The Commissioner also highlighted the practical difficulties of trying to use the DPA to regulate material posted on websites.

Mr Justice Tugendhat expressed considerable sympathy with the Commissioner’s comments about the practical difficulties in cases such as this. However, his starting point was that the offensive comments on the website in question were unlawful and that the DPA required that data be processed lawfully. He did not see how the exemption in section 36 DPA could apply in this case.  Mr Justice Tugendhat commented that had  the Defendant been publishing information in the public interest on his website, he could have relied on the exemption relating to journalism in section 32 DPA. Further, the fact that a claimant may have claims under common law torts or the Human Rights Act 1998, did not prevent enforcement under the DPA. He concluded by commenting that where there is any room for argument as to whether processing is unlawful under the general law, it may be more appropriate that a complainant should be required to pursue his remedy in the courts and further that there be many grounds on which the Commissioner may properly decline to exercise his powers under Part V DPA. However, where there is no room for argument that processing is unlawful, it was more difficult to say that the matter was not one which could be dealt with under Part V DPA. This ruling potentially has significant implications for the Commissioner in practice.

Rachel Kamm