Data Protection Commissioner
Data Protection Commissioner

CASE STUDY 6/01

Legal firm – identification of source of personal data – lack of co-operation – issue of enforcement notice


This case study provides a useful example of a matter which could have been disposed of easily at the outset, but which was protracted due to lack of cooperation from a data controller – in this case a solicitor. The case also demonstrates that, where I consider that an important issue is at stake, I am prepared to have full recourse to my legal powers until I reach a satisfactory conclusion.

The complainant had been involved in a car collision. The complainant and the other party involved had exchanged phone numbers but not addresses. The complainant subsequently received a phone call from a solicitor, acting for the other party involved, seeking her car registration number and address. The complainant declined to provide these details, since she had understood the matter to have been informally resolved, and that no recourse to legal action had been contemplated. In any event, some weeks later the complainant received a letter at her home address from the solicitor. The complainant asked how the solicitor had obtained these details, but this information was not forthcoming. The complainant raised the matter with me, as she suspected that her personal details had not been 'fairly obtained' by the solicitor, as required under the Data Protection Act.

On raising the matter with the solicitor, she explained that her client had noted the registration number of the complainant's car, and that the Motor Registration Bureau had used this information to supply the solicitor with the complainant's address, in accordance with the provisions of the Road Traffic Acts. However, the complainant contested this assertion. , since the solicitor and the complainant had declined to supply this information. Why would the solicitor have requested the car registration number during their initial phone call, the complainant asked, if the solicitor's client already had this information? The complainant argued forcefully that the solicitor must in fact have obtained the data from another source.

My Office put these points in writing to the solicitor, who declined to provide any further explanation, maintaining simply that the details had been obtained from the Motor Registration Bureau. I was not satisfied with the completeness or frankness of the solicitor's response and so, after repeated refusals from the solicitor to furnish additional information, I decided to issue a formal Information Notice under section 12 of the Data Protection Act. An Information Notice obliges the recipient to "furnish such information in relation to matters specified in the notice as is necessary or expedient for the performance by the Commissioner of his functions". It is an offence not to comply fully with the information sought; and in general, I only resort to issuing such a Notice if I consider that necessary information will not be provided voluntarily.

In response to the Information Notice, the solicitor stated that the details were obtained from its client and the Motor Registration Bureau. My Office then wrote once more to the solicitor expressing dissatisfaction with her reply. My Office had established that the Motor Registration Bureau had not been contacted by the solicitor until five months after the incident, while the complainant's home address was known to the solicitor within weeks of the incident. The solicitor was advised that, unless full particulars were forthcoming immediately, I would commence proceedings in accordance with section 30 of the Data Protection Act, 1988 for failure to comply with the Information Notice.

The solicitor responded with an explanation that the complainant's address details had, in fact, been obtained from her client, and only subsequently confirmed by the Motor Registration Bureau. This belated explanation, had it been provided at the outset, would have obviated the need for the protracted and time-consuming investigation of this matter.

It concerns me that, in this case, a member of the legal profession was reluctant to provide the straightforward information which I considered necessary to bring the complaint to a conclusion. It took seventeen months and the full use of my statutory powers to get the information in question. I can ill afford the time my staff had to devote to 'delaying tactics' – but where I feel an important issue is at stake I am prepared to pursue matters fully to reach a satisfactory conclusion. From my general experiences with legal practitioners to date, I consider this to have been an isolated case and not representative of the legal profession in general. However, should a similar type case arise in future from any source, I will have no hesitation in publicly naming the party involved, and in vigorously pursuing proceedings for any offences under the Act.