Data Rights and Distress

26th June 2020 Media Law

In the last few years, we have all become more aware of our data rights.

Successive, very important updates to the law have increased the responsibilities which all businesses, public sector bodies and charities now have when it comes to processing our personal information.

We are also constantly reminded when we begin a new job, subscribe to a gym membership or buy something online that we have an opportunity to have a say in how that material is dealt with.

One of the points which is still made to me, however, is that data still seems rather abstract: it doesn't seem to relate directly to our individual circumstances.

Whilst that perspective remains the view of some people, a complaint with which I've been dealing in recent months should illustrate the kind of consequences which infringements of data rights can have.

I've been speaking to the Manchester Evening News about one client who received a letter from Manchester City Council in 2018 asking her to register her son for primary school.

The problem was that he had passed away only days after his birth three years before.

At the time that the letter arrived at her home, my client was still receiving bereavement counselling for her loss.

As the MEN reported, my client was one of almost 100 families who had lost children to be sent similar letters.

Not only did the letter cause her tremendous upset and distress but it was followed by an apology - addressed simply to 'Dear Parent' - which she argues only intensified her sense of hurt.

She contacted the authority on three separate occasions, asking for an explanation, before getting in touch with myself.

I believe that the City Council's correspondence not only showed a lack of respect but - importantly - it fell well short of what might be regarded as legal data processing under data law.

That's actually something which the authority has acknowledged in its apology by admitting that it hadn't performed relatively basic checks on the information which it had before mailing the letters out.

The law anticipates how this sort of insensitive conduct can have legal outcomes, including the right for those affected to claim compensation.

What constitutes appropriate data processing was set out in the General Data Protection Regulation, which came into force just two months before Manchester City Council issued the offending letters.

The GDPR's seven guiding principles include fairness, accuracy and accountability - elements which I feel have not been adhered to in this case.

Even more than that, there is a recognition of the fact that breaches of the law can have a damaging impact on those involved, as my client and the other parents written to by Manchester City Council can attest.

Organisations have an obligation to treat our data carefully and fairly. We now have the means by which to seek redress from those that do not.

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Jemma Fleetwood is a Trainee Solicitor located in Manchesterin our Trainee Solicitors department

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Nick McAleenan is a Partner located in Manchester in our Media & Reputation Management; Data Protection & Privacy department

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