Personal data and FOI: the conflict continues

The interaction between freedom of information and data protection laws is one which often results in conflict. On the one hand there is a legislative scheme that operates to promote transparency, while on the other there is a legislative scheme that operates to protect personal data. FOI law essentially provides that information should be released unless there is a good reason not to; while data protection law says that personal data should not be processed unless there is a good reason to. Both have their complexities and those brief explanations do not adequately encapsulate them.

The decision of the Upper Tribunal in Information Commissioner v Halpin [2019] UKUT 29 (AAC) is an example of where the First-Tier Tribunal got it badly wrong when dealing with the legitimate interests ground for processing under the Data Protection Act 1998. The Respondent in this appeal, Mr. Halpin, had requested information from Devon Partnership NHS Trust concerning the training that two named social workers had undergone in respect of the Care Act 2014. When deciding whether to release personal data under FOI law there is essentially a three staged test which must be satisfied before the personal data can be disclosed; this test was set out clearly by the Supreme Court in South Lanarkshire Council v Scottish Information Commissioner.

Firstly, is a legitimate interest or interests being pursued by the controller, third party or parties to whim the personal data is to be disclosed? Secondly, if a legitimate interest has been identified, is the processing (by way of disclosure under FOI law) necessary for the purposes of those interests? Finally, if there is a legitimate interest and the processing is necessary for that legitimate interest, then the processing cannot be unwarranted by reason of prejudice to the rights and freedoms or legitimate interests of the data subject.

The first ground of appeal for which permission was granted was in respect of the FTT’s treatment of the effect of disclosure of the information to the world at large; in particular that the FTT had not deal with this matter in substance. This is an issue that needs to be carefully considered: disclosure under FOI is not simply a disclosure to the individual requester; it is a disclosure to the whole world. This is an important factor in determining the necessity of the processing in pursuance of the legitimate interest concerned. It is also important in considering whether the processing (by releasing the information under FOI) is unwarranted.

Once the information is disclosed under FOI law it is disclosed in circumstances where the public authority loses control of the information concerned; there is no duty of confidentiality owed. Therefore, there is nothing that can be done in order to prevent further dissemination of the information.

Upper Tribunal Judge Markus QC states, at paragraph 20, that Mr Halpin’s lack of motivation to publicise the information is irrelevant to the question of assessing the potential impact of disclosure to the world at large. The motivation of the requester is only relevant to the first of the three stages of the test set out in South Lanarkshire Council v Scottish Information Commissioner (whether a legitimate interest exist); it is not relevant to the question of necessity or the final question of balancing the legitimate interests against the rights, freedoms and legitimate interests of the data subject.

Public authorities, and those advising them, should therefore ensure that, when considering the release of personal data in response to a FOI request, they do not become focused on the individual requester; it is essential to consider the wider world when undertaking this assessment. The motivations of the requester might well be wholly benign, but there are others whose motivation may not be so benign and will utilise the information for other purposes. Requesters should also bear this in mind; an individual requester might have a perfectly legitimate interest in the personal data and the necessity test might very well be met in their individual case; that is not enough. Due consideration has to be given to the wider impact of releasing information to the world; this is why consideration has to be given to whether the personal data can be obtained in another way as part of the necessity test (although, the existence of other means of obtaining personal data, other than by way of a FOI request, will not necessarily be determinative of the issue).

Alistair Sloan

We are able to provide advice and assistance to public authorities and requesters in connection with matters concerning Freedom of Information laws; if you would like advice and assistance in connection with these matters, or any other information law matter, please contact Alistair Sloan on 0141 299 0880 or by E-mail. You can also follow our dedicated Information Law Twitter account.

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